The Story of Licquorice
Assyrian kings prized it above all else; Cleopatra used it to preserve her beauty, the ancient Chinese praised it for its healing qualities, and in ancient Greece, physicians found the liquorice root provided relief from chest complaints. The Romans even issued their soldiers with liquorice root to chew, to quench their thirst on long marches.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the secrets of liquorice were kept safe by monks, and it was they, who kick-started the growing of liquorice in England. Many of these monks settled near Pontefract – or Pomfret, where the soil was particularly suitable, and cultivated the plant in the gardens of their monasteries.
After the dissolution of the monasteries, Pontefract farmers continued to cultivate liquorice, and eventually, a cottage industry evolved to process and refine liquorice extract.
The Liquorice Plant
The liquorice plant resembles a small acacia shrub and the all important juice is extracted from the root to create what we know as liquorice.
These roots are soft, flexible and fibrous, and take up to four years to reach their full 30ft length. They also contain glycyrrhizin, an element which is 50 times sweeter than sugar.
Harvesting and Processing
For centuries, Qurna in Iraq – was one of the world centres for liquorice. Today, it is joined by the fertile banks of the Elbo and Guadalquiver rivers in Spain, the Jordan Valley in the Holy Land, the sun-baked plains of Syria, the sub-tropical shores of the Black Sea; the broad valley of the Volga, California, Louisiana… and, of course, Pontefract in Yorkshire.
As for harvesting, the process remains more or less unchanged. In the autumn, the plants are lifted and the upper parts discarded. After 9 or 10 months, when only 10% of moisture remains, the roots are pressed into 300lb bales. The root is then crushed and pulped and the extracted liquid is dried into a golden brown powder – which can be made into delicious confectionery, such as Liquorice Allsorts – a sweet enjoyed by many millions throughout the world.
As early as 1614, round liquorice lozenges were sold to ease stomach disorders. However, by the end of the 18th Century a new industry had arisen – the liquorice confectionery business.
That was when an enterprising young chemist from Pontefract, George Dunhill, first transformed liquorice lozenges into ‘Pomfret Cakes’. By 1885, there were 10 companies producing liquorice sweets in Pontefract. The most famous of these: Wilkinsons – is today part of Tangerine Confectionery, and still producing millions of Pontefract Cakes, each stamped with a seal representing the history and legend of Pontefract.
Confectioners soon found that liquorice sweets could be made into many different shapes. A wide range of novelties were introduced, each with a distinctive name and shape: Catherine Wheels, Pipes, Pencils, Bootlaces, Watches and many, many more.
George Bassett of Sheffied in particular, was synonymous with quality liquorice sweets including Liquorice Novelties, which were a combination of liquorice and cream paste.
In 1890, Bassett’s salesman, Charlie Thompson, visited a wholesaler in Leicester with his samples case full of liquorice specialities.
Each item was offered to the wholesaler, and each in turn was refused. Perhaps in his disappointment, Charlie clumsily gathered his sample boxes together, knocking them over and spilling the colourful sweets in a jumble on the counter.
The wholesaler saw more attraction in the “mixed up sweets” than in the individual products, and placed an order for a “mixed” delivery. Bassett did just that, and asked Charlie Thompson to give the new assortment a name …He called them Liquorice Allsorts!