Liquorice is making a comeback according to the Daily Mail with nutritionists singing its praises because of their concern over child obesity.
This naturally-growing root was common in many guises in my youth. First there was the hard stick of liquorice, flattened like a spatula about halfway up. We used it to dip into kali, pronounced Kay-li, (I think that’s how it was spelt) which was basically coloured, flavoured sugar.
Then there was the softer stuff called “spanish” usually rolled into a coil with a liquorice sweet in middle. Next the really hard stuff, short sticks of the black stuff which were real jawbreakers. And Little Imps, a small tin with little square of hard liquorice.
During the summer, when we would go off on “adventures,” we would put a liquorice in a bottle of water to dissolve to create “liquorice water” to drink when we were out. I don’t know why the stuff tasted bloody awful.
Liquorice is the sweetest substance on earth, more than 50 times as sweet as cane sugar. Its taste can be detected even when diluted one part to 20,000 parts of water. (Ah, so that’s why we made liquorice water — it was scientific experiment!)
The earliest mention of liquorice was found on stone tablets in Baghdad dating back to seven centuries BC. The ancient Assyrians had used it as a diuretic to treat their royal masters, and for sore feet.
The Romans called it radix dulcis, or “sweet root”. They used the powdered root to relieve mouth ulcers and treat wounds. More recently, it has been examined as a possible medicine for the treatment of cancer, Aids and even SARS.
A 1998 survey into the link between odours and libido found that the most effective female aphrodisiac was the aroma produced by blending liquorice and cucumber. However, Italian researchers have found that eating liquorice can dent the production of testosterone in men. (Doesn’t God have a wicked sense of humour?)
Liquorice is the root of a shrub related to the pea family, and is native to much of southern Europe and Asia. It was brought to Britain from the Middle East at the time of the Crusades.
In the early 16th century, the root began to be cultivated in the monastery garden at Pontefract, for herbal use. It thrived there because of the high concentration of clay in the soil. As a result, the Yorkshire town became the centre of Britain’s liquorice industry.
Today, only two liquorice processing factories (down from 13) remain in Pontefract, but the town still boasts a street named Liquorice Way, stages an annual Liquorice Festival and makes products including liquorice sauce for ice cream and liquorice-flavoured cheese.
The first packet of multi-coloured Liquorice Allsorts was created by accident in 1899 when a salesman knocked over his tray of samples, scattering sweets all over the counter. The customer liked the look of the different sweets all mixed up and immediately placed an order.
I think I’ve talked myself into a walk to the shop to get some!