When eating these little coin-sized disks of liquorice, how many of us ever think or are even aware of the fascinating history behind them?
Liquorice root has been known and used since ancient times: the Chinese, ancient Greeks, Romans , Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Indians made good use of this tasty, sweet, and thirst quenching plant for its medicinal benefits: it has been ascribed aphrodisiac qualities, and is supposed to sooth sore throats.
Legend has it that Crusader knights brought the living root back to Pontefract from the Near East, giving it to the skilled plantsmen at the Cluniac Priory of St John in Pontefract, or Pomfret as it was once known (the sweets are still sometimes called Pomfret cakes). The sandy soil in the area proved ideal for growing it, and business developed over the years – Chaucer mentions it as sweetening the breath, a perennial subject in medieval literature.
To be a proper Pontefract cake one side of the disk should be stamped with a design, the original being supposedly according to a seal design made in the town in 1614. When sugar was added to the mix by a local apothecary they became even more popular. Until the 1950s the cakes were made by hand, stamped with the design and cut from sheets of pleasantly uneven material giving the sweet a certain pre-industrial cachet.
While there are still factories in Pontefract making the confectionary, liquorice is no longer grown there on a commercial scale at least. The product is important still for the local economy, and is part of the town’s identity, to such an extent that every summer there is a liquorice day held in Pontefract. And why not? Pomfret cakes are very more-ish, with real flavour and a pleasant feel in the mouth that almost makes you feel like they may be doing you good, and even if they are not they’re a treat anyway.