Yorkshire's liquorice revival: All sorts of tradition

It once fuelled an entire industry, but having died out in the 1960s, Phil Penfold reports on Yorkshire's liquorice revival.

While once used purely for sweets, liquorice is now being used in restauran dishes, like this main course of pan roast loin of venison 
with Pontefract cake sauce.
While once used purely for sweets, liquorice is now being used in restauran dishes, like this main course of pan roast loin of venison with Pontefract cake sauce.

For many of us, liquorice will mean one of two things. It will either be the stuff that stuck out of a tube of sherbet or a packet of Allsorts – which apparently got their nickname around 1900, after a rep for the Bassett confectionary firm fell off his pushbike, got his samples mixed up, and then made a virtue of the resulting jumbled confusion in his carrying case.

It’s a love or loathe it foodstuff, but it’s important to Yorkshire goes beyond a few boxes of sweets. The town of Pontefract and the surrounding area was built on the twin black economies of coal and liquorice trade. A few decades back, if you didn’t work down the pit, or have someone in the family who did, then you probably had someone close to you who worked in one of the many local confectionery firms.

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It’s not native to England.

Pontefracts own Liquorice Festival

While liquorice was first used by the Greeks in the 3rd century BC and a stick of it was discovered when Tutankhamun’s tomb was excavated, it took a millennium and more before it was brought over here where it was used by religious foundations to alleviate or even cure various ailments.

The Dominican monks, who established the priory at Pontefract, would have certainly known about liquorice, and were probably the first to plant it here. It thrived in the loamy, sandy soil which allows the deep roots – they can reach four to five feet – to thrive. As Pontefract’s newest liquorice farmer, Heather Copley, puts it rather neatly, “It can get to be a bit of a spaghetti junction down there and the leafy bushes above the roots can be up to six feet in height.”

It was around 1614 that the initial commercialisation of the Pontefract liquorice harvest was established. The juice and extract were formed into small circular lozenges, and were stamped to identify them as coming from the town. These were the very first Pontefract Cakes.

Designed to be medicinal, they were only turned into confectionary in 1760, when a local apothecary, George Dunhill, added a little sugar to the mix. By the end of the 1800s, demand for the sweets had grown to such an extent that the liquorice fields of South Yorkshire couldn’t keep up, and imports, chiefly from Spain, began to trickle in. Sadly, that trickle became a torrent. What happened to steel and coal in recent years also happened to liquorice back then – it was simply cheaper to bring in supplies from Iran, Turkey and Iraq. A century back, there were only four remaining liquorice farmers within the boundaries of Pontefract, and when the Second World War ended, there were just two. In 1966 the last roots were lifted. The final plant left was a single specimen, tucked under one of the walls of the castle, in a small herb garden. And just about the only reminder of a once-proud industry was a poem written by John Betjeman, once the Poet Laureate, which begins:

Pontefracts own Liquorice Festival

In the licorice fields at Pontefract,

My love and I did meet,

And many a burden licorice bush,

Was blooming round our feet.

Red hair she had, and golden skin,

Her sulky lips were shaped for sin,

Her sturdy legs were flannel slack’d,

The strongest legs in Pontefract.

It is Sir John’s own spelling of “licorice”. No-one knows if he ever visited Pontefract. Or if he liked liquorice.

But these days, liquorice is being rediscovered across Europe. In Scandinavia, it is one of the staples of the domestic larder. It is, in fact, a spice, and when used, it is generally after the roots have been cooked for over 36 hours, reduced to a solid mass, then pulverised into a powder, and the powder dissolved in top grade molasses. This is all very different from the low-grade sweets of our youth. And it will come as no surprise that Nigella Lawson is one of the biggest champions of liquorice in cooking. In fact, when she gave it glowing references late last year, one of the websites selling liquorice crashed only an hour or so later.

Nigella is not alone. Anna Hansen is a leading chef, and says: “Liquorice is a star ingredient. It works brilliantly with chocolate. It is also great in berry jams and compotes – raspberry and blackberry are also good. For savoury dishes, add a dash to a grilled meat dressing or jus, or pop some into a stock for poaching meats.” And Heston Blumenthal poaches salmon in it.

All of which is rhapsodic music to the ears of Heather Copley and her husband Rob. The Copley family have farmed the land here for 200 years and more, and the husband and wife team have built up the business to include a hugely successful farm shop. They met when Rob left Yorkshire briefly to work in Dorset – his father had decided to sell up the then dairy herd – and they met at a local skittles match. They returned to home turf a while back, after a spell in Cheshire, and they now employ 46 staff. They travel all over the globe looking at food products, and holidays, says Heather, “never ever turn out to be total relaxation. We always want to know ‘How do they do that?’, or ‘where does that come from?’ We never ever seem to switch off.”

Heather heard a lot about Pontefract’s liquorice history from her staff and customers alike. “Our business is really more like a ‘community hub’,” she laughs, “and with our many regulars – we have a footfall of about 4,500 customers a week – everyone seems to know nearly everyone else, and of course you get to learn things about people, where they worked, what their families do – or did – and of course there were a lot of mentions about how big the liquorice industry had been.

“So it was just over four years ago that Rob and I were talking one evening, and we both thought ‘Well, why not give it a go… let’s try growing some, and we’ll see what happens? We researched it all – as we always do – and we put in about a hundred plants. It takes quite a while for them to establish, and you have to be very patient, but last year we had our first harvest. And some of the roots were over five feet long.”

The Copley clan are famed for their pumpkin festival in the autumn, and their summertime pick your own fruit enterprises, and it now looks as if the liquorice harvest in late summer might well rival those events.

The land given over to liquorice by the end of this year will be about a quarter of an acre. That will triple in 2017. And already the Copleys are thinking beyond that. Their visitor centre will open in a couple of months’ time, and there will be talks, guided tours, a slew of liquorice recipes to try (and sample in the restaurant) and they are already agitating – in the nicest possible way – to get Pontefract Liquorice the sort of listed name status that is enjoyed by Parma Ham and Melton Mowbray Pork Pies. Heather says: “It is not just a sweet, but a truly exciting culinary ingredient as well. It is simply delicious. Who would have thought that it would go so beautifully with duck, with beef, with venison? And that you could even make a great beer with it? We asked what the Great Newsome Brewery from Hull could come up with, and their ale with added liquorice is one of the most popular things on our shelves.”

They both hope that their two sons, 13-year-old Jacob and Harry, 11, will carry on the business.

“Rob and I have given it about another 20 years, by which time we think we’ll want to hand over. If they don’t want to pick up the reins, then that is entirely up to them. We shall see. But we do hope that they will see that we have worked ethically, and that we have tried a lot of things, and that while we are farmers who are rooted in our own soil, we are far from ‘stick in the mud’.

“So when we get our liquorice crop up and established, you won’t find any better in Britain. And you know what? It’s also really good for you – a brilliant substitute for sugar. So many, many times sweeter – and no worries about calories. I love walking the fields where it’s been planted. You can almost hear it growing underneath your feet.”

For further information, [email protected] Pontefract Liquorice Festival call 0345 601 8353.