Dear Readers, I do not consider myself to be a fussy eater, but if I have a nemesis in the confectionary world it is liquorice (or licorice if you are North American). When I was a child I remember peeling all the sugar paste off of my Liquorice Allsorts and leaving that unholy black stuff for my mum, who loved it. The very worst were those sweets that not only contained liquorice but were coated in aniseed, my second most-hated sweetmeat ingredient. I take my hat off to anyone who actually enjoys them, you must have the stomach and tastebuds of a megatherium.So, it was during my visit to Coal Drops Yard last week that I find myself thinking about liquorice, for the first time in many, many years. The plant that intrigued me was the Chinese species Glychorriza yunnanensis, but like all of the liquorice plants its Latin genus name means ‘sweet root’. The species normally used to create the sweets is British or American Liquorice (Glychorriza glabra), and it is a member of the pea family (Fabaceae) – as I mentioned last week, the seedheads of ‘our’ plant reminded me of a giant clover, but the ‘real’ liquorice plant looks even more leguminous.
All of the liquorice plants contain a substance called glycyrrhizin, which can cause adverse effects if more than 2mg of the pure active ingredient are eaten in a day. The chemical can wreak havoc with your blood pressure and give you diarrhoea – unfortunately it is one of the substances sometimes used as a purgative (along with senna and rhubarb) by those with anorexia/bulimia (see here for a most interesting article). Glycyrrhizin is 30 times as sweet as sugar, and so there is actually very little of it in liquorice sweets, with aniseed being used to produce most of the flavour, so you would have to eat a lot before you were poisoned (though a 56 year-old woman was admitted to hospital with muscle failure after eating 200g of Pontefract cakes (of which more later)).
I once had a spell working in the Netherlands (Rotterdam to be precise) and liquorice-flavoured sweets were a great favourite. Most reception desks had a bowl of wrapped sweeties to munch on while you waited to be admitted to the offices of the great and the good and many times I was caught out, throwing what I thought was a mint into my mouth only to discover that it was most definitely not. The worst occasion involved a salty-liquorice hard candy which I subsequently learned was called a zoute drop. I had just discovered my mistake when I spotted the Finance Director descending in a glass lift like some kind of corporate angel. There being no time to deposit the sweet in a plant pot or wrap it in a tissue, I just had to swallow it. My face must have been a picture.
The romance of business travel is much overstated in my opinion.
If you are unfortunate, you may also come across salty liquorice in the Nordic countries.
In many cultures, the root of the liquorice plant is eaten without any preparation, as a breath-sweetener and an aid to digestion. I imagine that chewing on the fibrous bit of the plant gently releases the sweetness, but without the danger to the teeth. In the UK the first liquorice sweets were probably the Pontefract cakes made in Yorkshire: Spanish monks apparently brought the plant to Rievaulx Abbey near Thirsk, and the confectionary is still known as ‘Spanish’ in the area. Have a look at these little tarry tablets of pure hell. You’re welcome.
In the wild, British liquorice grows in a great swathe of Eastern Mediterranean countries, right the way through Central Asia and as far east as Mongolia. It loves well-drained soils and sunshine, and if cultivated, is harvested three years after planting. For a long time it was used as a flavouring for tobacco, particularly pipe tobacco. Our ‘insurance man’, Mr Sawtell, used to visit the house once a month to collect the payments on Mum and Dad’s life insurance, and I remember that his teeth were worn into a perfect inverse-V shape by his constant pipe smoking. I also remember a certain sickly-sweet smell to the miasma that hung around him constantly, these being the days before worries about passive smoking (or indeed active smoking). I wonder if that is one of the factors in my life-long loathing of this apparently innocuous substance?
Liquorice is also used as an ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine, being believed to harmonize the different elements of a prescription. Some studies consider it effective in the treatment of psoriasis-related infections and in the killing of the bacteria Helicobacter pylori, which is associated with stomach ulcers. It could possibly also be useful in the treatment of Hepatitis C.
And now, a poem. As we have seen, liquorice was once grown commercially in Yorkshire, but those days are largely gone (though one intrepid farmer decided to plant some liquorice to provide ‘chewing sticks’ for visiting children back in 2012). However, that lover of British Amazons Sir John Betjeman was moved to write about wooing one of his paramours in a liquorice field. The results are much what you’d expect from this poet who had a remarkable sense of rhythm and rhyme, even though, for me, he never really rose above the whimsical. I do love the line about the sturdy, flannel-slack’d legs however. It’s not that easy to find rhymes for ‘Pontefract’.
The Licorice Fields at Pontefract by John Betjeman
In the licorice fields at Pontefract
My love and I did meet
And many a burdened 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.
The light and dangling licorice flowers
Gave off the sweetest smells;
From various black Victorian towers
The Sunday evening bells
Came pealing over dales and hills
And tanneries and silent mills
And lowly streets where country stops
And little shuttered corner shops.
She cast her blazing eyes on me
And plucked a licorice leaf;
I was her captive slave and she
My red-haired robber chief.
Oh love! for love I could not speak,
It left me winded, wilting, weak,
And held in brown arms strong and bare
And wound with flaming ropes of hair.
Photo One by By David Edgar – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56641498
Photo Two by By en:User:Ballista – from English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1334460
Photo Three By Marcin Floryan – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1300952
Photo Four By Dave Spellman from Lancashire, England – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2210468
Photo Five By Sjschen (Sjschen) – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1951252