“Infamy, infamy! They’ve all got it infamy!”, said Richard II just before he was murdered in Pontefract Castle, Yorkshire, England. The town has another claim to notoriety: liquorice, whose history is to be recorded in a new museum.
There are plans to convert Pontefract’s magistrates’ court into an exhibition space celebrating 400 years of sweet-making. Liquorice was first brought to the town in 1090 by Crusaders returning from the Holy Land and was cultivated in the 14th century by Spanish monks who settled at Pontefract Priory. The root has medicinal properties: easing coughs and stomach complaints. By 1614 liquorice extract was being formed into small lozenges, but it was not until 1750 that a local apothecary, George Dunhill, decided to add sugar to the recipe and liquorice became a sweet known as the Pomfret or Pontefract Cake.
The liquorice plant is a legume native to southern Europe and parts of Asia. However, it is not botanically related to anise, star anise, or fennel, which contain similarly flavoured compounds. Liquorice sticks are soft enough to be chewed, although excessive consumption of liquorice or liquorice candy is known to be toxic to the liver and cardiovascular system, and can lead to hypertension.
Pontefract cakes (also known Pomfrey cakes) are small, roughly circular black sweets made of liquorice. The original name was a “Pomfret” cake, but that name fell into disuse. Pomfret was the old Norman name for the town, hence the lines in Shakespeare’s play Richard III:
Pontefract Cakes are made to a special recipe in which liquorice roots are cleaned, ground and then boiled. Sugar is added, along with a thickening agent (usually starch, although gum arabic was used originally). This raw mass is allowed to dry and cool for about a week, then cut into blocks weighing around seven kilograms each. The blocks are pulled out into a long strand, which is cut into small rounds by a machine. The rounds are then placed in a press where they are flattened in a mould that applies the traditional Pontefract Cake stamp.
Until the mid 20th century all Pontefract Cakes were embossed by hand (the workers who did this were known as “cakers” and were able to produce upwards of 30,000 per day), but now they are usually machinery formed. The embossed stamp was originally a stylised image of Pontefract Castle with a raven on the top bar, which is thought to have been in use for almost 400 years.
Apparently, local farmers are thinking of growing liquorice again to meet increasing demand. So ramblers may soon be able to wander among the kind of sweet-smelling flowers noted by the English poet Sir John Betjeman in “The Licorice Fields of Pontefract”:
“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.”