Sweet liquorice is this nation’s oldest and possibly favourite confection. Pontefract, a spiritual home for it. Little did I know when I started the Saint Valentines Liquorice Co in 1994 to supply the finest quality Italian liquorice, just how passionate we are about it. Britain and specifically Yorkshire can be very proud of its liquorice roots (no pun intended). Our love affair with the sweet black liquorice stuff goes back a long, long way. But as luck would have it, my sweet Liquorice met everyone’s expectations of what “proper liquorice” should taste like.
Sweet liquorice luck
When I sold my first sweet liquorice sticks at the East of England show grounds, at the fantastically named “Truck Fest” on the Bank Holiday weekend in May 1994, little did I know how snobbish English liquorice fans could be?
I’ll let you into a bit of a trade secret. Even when our country was at the peak of liquorice confectionery production from 1900 to the 1930s, most of all the liquorice extract used in production came from Calabria in southern Italy. The reason for this was simply the growing season for a mature Liquorice plant in Yorkshire took 5-7 times as long as a plant from sunny, warm southern Italy. We are talking 5-7 years instead of 9-12 months. Our booming confectionery industry needed more, much more liquorice extract than we could grow. Demand had outstripped supply. Not so homegrown as we want to believe. On the upside for hardcore liquorice fans, Calabrian liquorice is renowned for being the best in the world.
Nevertheless, you try telling that to a bunch of eager liquorice allsorts fans who up until that moment thought all sweet liquorice started and finished in Pontefract and Wakefield. Hard Bassetti sticks, Ponti cakes, Catherine wheels and the like. Now that’s liquorice, according to this sunny crowd.
The burden of proof
‘The burden of proof lies not with the person making the claim, but with someone else to disprove”.
There was an air of almost disbelief when I sampled my Sweet Original Italian Twists. The size, for one, threw them. 50cm of black twisted liquorice, looking like shiny edible, yummy ropes. The Italians knew pasta and how to process quantities through an extruder. Now they applied the same techniques in sweet liquorice manufacture. A far cry from moulded Pomfret or Pontefract cakes stamped with the Pontefract Castle seal; this crowd considered the pinnacle of quality.
It is not surprising there is such loyalty & pride in the liquorice products produced in the Yorkshire town and the surrounding area. After all, liquorice arrived here in medieval times. And after centuries of making the go-to cure-all tonic of the day, a booming confectionery business was born around 1750. Enter stage left, George Dunhill, a Scottish chemist who claimed he was the first to add sugar to liquorice.
A short history
In the 10-12th century, Benedictine monks made their way to Yorkshire. They brought the perennial herbaceous plant, Glycyrrhiza Glabra (the liquorice plant) and the knowledge of its power to heal to our shores for the first time. We extract natural liquorice or liquorice extract from the roots of the plant. The clever monks made medicinal pastels by mixing the extract of these plants but without adding sugar.
As time went on, tenant farmer families tended the liquorice fields of Pontefract. It must have been a hard life for these subsistence farmers, who regularly grew potatoes amongst the liquorice plants to help make a living. But by the early 1700s, there were up to 50 families involved. Their crops of liquorice root turned to black gold in the hands of the Monks of Pontefract the castle.
As demand grew for the medicinal properties of Yorkshire liquorice, the town elders in Pontefract rented the castle to store the harvested roots. So valuable were they to the local economy. (at the time, physicians used it as a cure-all for everything from stomach ulcers and heartburn to colic, bronchitis and tuberculosis).
Let’s make liquorice sweet!
Meanwhile, in sunny, warm Calabria, the plant that produces juicy sweet liquorice roots grew like weeds. Here too, farming families grew, processed and cooked liquorice. The tradition of making small, pure liquorice formed into pellets or lozenges has a wonderfully rich and inspiring history in southern Italy. Calabrian liquorice contains higher levels of the naturally occurring compounds that give liquorice its distinct taste. And this phenomena has helped Calabrian liquorice gain its worldwide reputation for quality. My sweet Italian liquorice had a good start in life.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating
I am writing this article 27 years after Truckfest 94 and the day I presented a novel Italian liquorice confection to a curious public. Since then, I’ve had simply thousands of face-to-face encounters sampling my liquorice with new customers. The delight in recognising that what they are eating is good liquorice, worthy of our discerning taste, is indeed sweet music to my ears. And it goes someway to proves that sweet liquorice from Saint Valentines Liquorice Company is still amongst the best in the UK today.