Pontefract ( Pomfret ) Liquorice Cakes

Pontefract Liquorice Cakes

It has been some 20 years since we have been able to procure English Pontefract liquorice and we are delighted to see that it is back in production once again. In the early days of the 20th century the town of Pontefract ( in Yorkshire ) had 13 liquorice factories that made and exported this candy all over the world. The fields that grew the licorice plants which supplied the factories with the necessary roots had been flourishing on grounds that once belonged to Pontefract Castle for several hundred years. The liquorice plants were originally grown by local Monks who received a Royal Decree protecting their rights to a monopoly on liquorice root production.

Pontefract Castle as it once was

Today, the liquorice fields have been abandoned. The last liquorice harvest in Pontefract took place in 1966 and the last commercial grower, James Shay, died in 1984.  But thanks to the efforts of two confectionery companies – Haribo, formerly Dunhills; and Tangerine Confectionery ( Taveners Brand, formerly Wilkinsons of Pontefract )– Pontefract liquorice is being made again. The raw materials are now imported from Spain, Italy and Turkey.

Our Pontefract liquorice is Taveners Brand, and it is very similar in taste to the Pontefract cakes that we sold in our store 20 years ago. We are so pleased to have this ever-so-tasty English liquorice once again for our liquorice-loving customers.

Pontefract liquorice is appealing due to its soft, chewy texture and the fact that it is long on liquorice flavor without being too sweet, or salty or ammoniated.  The coin-thin shape of each candy is pleasantly chewy and substantial, and not thin or gummy or sticky in texture. The flavor is pleasantly strong and natural tasting – not overly sweet or cloying. I like to think of it as the ‘ liquorice lovers liquorice ‘ or liquorice for grown-ups.

Each liquorice cake bears the imprint of Pontefract Castle on one side, which is a nod to the historic importance of this confection. The castle also helps to connect the liquorice has to its former medicinal role.

Pontefract Castle Coat of Arms

Pontefract liquorice has a wonderful, rich history that began during the Middle Ages. Much like other foods and beverages ( tea ! ) whose use began as an herbal/medicinal, liquorice was used to treat coughs, dry mouth, stomach problems, congestion in the lungs and chest, etc.  The natural sweetness of the sap contained in the root of the liquorice plant made it popular and pleasing to chew. But liquorice did not become a confection until the 18th century.

In The Canterbury Tales,  Chaucer (1343-1400)  makes the reader aware of the sweet, ‘cleansing’ effects of liquorice in the second story, The Millers Tale, when he tells us that Absalon chewed some licorice root before he pursued Alison: ” he cheweth grain and liquorice to smellen sweet.”

Scholars believe that the town of Pontefract was making liquorice as early as 1614.  A hand-held ‘stamp’ which was used to emboss and authenticate each piece of liquorice has been found bearing this date as well as the image of Pontefract Castle.

A Pontefract Liquorice Seal

But another 140 years would pass before a local dentist named George Dunhill ( what irony ! ) thought to add sugar to the sticky liquorice paste and transform it from a medicinal into a sweetmeat ( confection ).

Up until the 1960’s all Pontefract Cakes were stamped by hand by workers known as thumpers. Each worker would pull a lump of liquorice and kneed and roll it until it was soft and pliable. Then a piece roughly the size of the finished confection was pinched off, and flattened by hand.

Lastly, each piece was stamped with the trademark image of Pontefract Castle that identified it. The pressure applied on the liquorice by the thumper also formed the familiar little ridge around the edge of each piece. It is estimated that a good thumper could stamp 20,000 Pontefract Cakes per day !

A Pontefract Cake thumper. Image courtesy of Leeds University Newsletter, 2004

But liquorice is not isolated just to Britain. Liquorice lovers in other European countries such as Denmark, Germany and Holland have their own special liquorice, too, and each region’s style is different from another. Some types are soft and sweet, others rather hard and salty. The Italians have a soft spot for liquorice, and it is hard and surprisingly strong and slightly bitter. A throwback to the herbal/medicinal days, perhaps.

According to one of my favorite websites –http://www.foodmuseum.com/–  liquorice has been discovered in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs, including that of Tutankhamen, who lived from 1356 to 1339 B.C. Perhaps their subjects intended that in the afterlife, the rulers should drink mai sus, a sweet, licorice-flavored drink still enjoyed in Egypt. The ancient Egyptians, as well as the Greeks and Romans, used licorice as a cold and cough medicine. Ancient Indians and Chinese knew the root and believed that consuming it increased their vigor and strength. In the A.D. 800’s, the Moors grew liquorice in Spain.

Unicorns, the most elusive of creatures, are rumored to have a liking for liquorice. As did Cleopatra.

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Distinctive Vinegars

Distinctive vinegars are making a big splash these days. Chefs and home cooks alike have realized the flavor possibilities that today’s heady vinegars offer. From Spanish sherry vinegar to Italy’s famed balsamic vinegar, to fruit vinegars pressed exclusively from fruits other than grapes (  apples, currants, pears to name a few ) this ancient condiment has become the new playground for cooks seeking to add flavor without adding sweetness or heat. In fact, in some cases, salt can be reduced or eliminated if vinegar is used in a dish.

Vinegar is an essential component that adds verve and backbone to a recipe, be it as elemental as pairing  an agrodolce ( late harvest ) Sauvignon Blanc wine vinegar with a slightly peppery olive oil for a seasonal pear, walnut and baby spinach salad, or the addition of a splash of a nutty, aromatic sherry vinegar to an end-of-summer chilled gazpacho or a simple tapas-inspired dish of chorizo, garlic and white beans.

In recent years Americans have embraced the sweet-sour glory of balsamic vinegar, a very heady departure from the clean-edges of the prim but delicious French tarragon and shallot white wine vinegars that reigned supreme during Julia’s heyday on television program The French Chef in the 1970’s.

Bob and Julia then....

In the late 1980’s the Silver Palate took NYC ( and the rest of foodie-America ) by storm with their innovative recipes and new, fresh approach to food. They lit a spark of interest in America for raspberry and blueberry vinegars that  began the ascendancy of fruit vinegar as a gourmet ingredient and essential flavor component.

Today, all manner of artisan vinegars can be found. Some tend towards being dry or sweet,  others fruity or piquant. Some are thick and dark in color, others are thin, golden, tawny or port-like in color. My pantry is full of flavorsome vinegars, and I use them all with great delight. It is as important to me that I choose the right vinegar to enhance my dish and I select it with as much consideration as I do olive oil, salt, cheese, spices and herbs, and wine. I select vinegar based on the dish and the harmony of flavors that I want the vinegar to bring to the dish.

Despite what many think, vinegar is not spoiled wine. Yes, wine vinegar is made from grapes, and vinegar can be made at home from leftover wine ( plus the addition of a mother, a fermentation keg, etc. ) but the process used to make wine is different than the process used to make vinegar.

The winemaking process converts fruit sugar into alcohol; vinegar-making converts the fruit sugar into a dilute 10-13 % alcohol then employs a bacterial fermentation to convert the alcohol in the fruit sugar into acetic acid, or vinegar. This same process yields stunning, albeit more costly results with other fruit such as apples, pears, cherries or figs.

When skilled vinegar makers use sound, ripe fruit and barrel age their products, great vinegar results. Many European and California wine makers reserve a portion of their grapes for vinegar making. I love the distinctive flavors that these grapes give to the vinegar, and can often taste the ‘wine grape ‘ in the bottle.

Short cuts, speedy production and damaged fruit compromise flavor.  Those of us who grew up with flavorless, colorless and just plain nasty vinegar in the pre-Julia days remember all too well when vinegar was anything but gourmet.

The best vinegars adds a tart, sharp, clean, distinct snap to vinaigrettes, marinades, sauces, chutneys and pickles. Vinegars should be a good marriage of flavor and acidity and add something to the conversation that is going on between all of the food elements on the plate.

Great vinegars are very reasonably priced, and most cost less than a good bottle of wine. And vinegar keeps well for years. We all have spice cabinets or spice drawers – why not a vinegar shelf ?

 

For our selection of personally-selected artisan vinegars, click here: http://www.cooksshophere.com/products/vinegar.htm

Fresh Korean Green Teas have arrived !

We are delighted to announce that our Korean spring green teas – Ujeon, Sejak and Jungjak – have arrived and are now posted for sale on our website teatrekker.com.

Additional tasting notes and other bits of information will be posted in a few days, but we wanted to post the teas ASAP and alert everyone that the teas are here. The tea is as delicious and sound as we remember it to be when we tasted it in Korea.

Our selections are organic and grown close to Ssanggye-sa temple in Hwagae valley, which runs into the south-west slopes of Mt. Jiri. We have held the prices to a very reasonable level ( ie. prices – in – Korea – prices ) so that those interested in experiencing these premium teas can do so.

Click here to read more and to purchase Korean tea:

http://www.teatrekker.com/2010_korean.htm