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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2 thoughts on “Pontefract ( Pomfret ) Liquorice Cakes

  1. Thanks for the excellent history and overview of this licorice! We just bought some of this at your store; and usually I’m happy to have a taste or two and leave the rest for hubby. I find most licorice either too sweet, too hard or just doesn’t taste good to me. I really like this licorice. And, one or two after dinner is an excellent “sweet.”!

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