Spanish, Pomfret or Pontefract? It’s all liquorice to me.
There’s summat in’t soil around these parts and by ‘these parts’ of course I mean Yorkshire. Pride at being from Yorkshire has never left me, but what I’ve brought back with me after thirty years on the road is curiosity and a desire to seek out the slightly preposterous, no matter where I roam. We are currently immersed in Rhubarb season, when I say ‘we,’ I mean those of us who live in the Rhubarb Triangle, that oh so famous area between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell, where the soil is as ‘clarty’ as that on the banks of the Volga and where Yorkshire’s finest forced rhubarb thrives.
However, rhubarb isn’t the only more unusual crop that we Yorkshire Folk have half-inched and turned into a local treasure and national tourist attraction. No, we also lay claim to liquorice. Our elders called it, Spanish, other names are Pomfret Cakes or Pontefract Cakes, both being exactly the same product, whilst being nothing like a cake, obviously. Confused? Bear with me, I’m just getting started.
It’s one of those things isn’t it, a name you hear so often the actual association passes you by? So it came to pass that it never actually occurred to me that Pontefract cakes are from,
well, Pontefract. And to further prove my ignorance, it wasn’t until taking dad on a day out and spotting a sign for Pontefract Castle that I even knew there was a castle in Pontefract never mind its importance in British history. Enter a detour and there, in the grounds were liquorice plants, a liquorice named café and shop. To be fair, I had previously vaguely wondered how Haribo had ended up choosing Pontefract as their destination of choice, but it turns out that this was because the founders of Star Mix, the world’s best-selling gummy sweet, purchased Dunhill’s, the inventors of liquorice Pontefract Cakes, who were, of course, based in Pontefract. But how did liquorice end up in Pontefract, who was George Dunhill and why did everyone in my grandmother’s generation call liquorice, ‘Spanish?’ And why do some people call them Pomfret Cakes and some Pontefract cakes and again, why here?
Naturally my curiosity was piqued, and I had to discover how, why and when liquorice became as synonymous with West Yorkshire as Kendall Mint Cake is with the north. Origins it seems date as far back as the Norman conquest in 1066 when it is believed this medicinal plant (shown to reduce body fat, heal stomach ulcers, and fight infections) first landed on these shores though whether it was brought by Dominican monks or crusaders, no one is quite sure. The Dominican Order was founded by a Spanish priest, hold that thought.
Pontefract Castle was also built round about this time. I couldn’t quite believe that I’d never known there was a castle here, particularly given that it was one of the most important and the bloodiest castles in British History. It was the site of many civil wars, the stomping ground for historical figures such as the Grand Old Duke of York, defeated at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460, and King Richard II, who was supposedly imprisoned and starved to death for treason on the site. It was mentioned in Shakespeare, Pomfret Castle being a setting in Richard II and III. In Richard II, the King is dragged to Pomfret Castle, where he ruminates on his life when imprisoned in the dungeons – and is killed as the play ends. It also was the scene of Catherine Howard’s affair in 1541 which led to this fifth wife of Henry VIII, being beheaded. Ultimately it was Oliver Cromwell who implored the people of Pontefract to have the castle destroyed and, given the multitude of sieges and wars that it was involved in, they were only too happy to oblige, more than ready for a peaceful life.
But, if now destroyed and longer to be the scene of so much death and destruction, what could the castle become? Well, in a wonderful twist of fate, how about using the land to grow a medicinal plant, liquorice? This plant needs trenches, 6 feet deep to grow, and where better than the sandy soil of a castle hillock? And so, by 1720, the castle was firmly entrenched in the mass production of liquorice which, doctors of the time used to cure most things from stomach ulcers, heartburn, bronchitis to tuberculosis. Its damp and dark dungeons, with walls etched with the graffiti of dying prisoners, were the perfect place to store vast quantities of this medicinal root.
Now we come to the next part of this story. Remember the Dunhills? This is where they enter, stage left. Cast your mind back to 1760 and meet George Dunhill, a chemist based in Pontefract, no doubt doing a roaring trade. Imagine a child, a tad bored, loitering in the kitchens, who decided to add sugar to the liquorice (which was by that time in the form of a dissolvable medicinal paste) inadvertently creating a chewable lozenge, and thus the sweet that we still delight in today, was invented.
Pontefract then became a boom town in the sweet trade and by the 19th Century there were around 20 sweet companies, and 10 huge factories in which teams of around 45 female workers processed 25,000 ‘cakes’ daily. Imagine eating sweets all day and losing weight? Well, if they did actually work for weight loss by the time that sugar was added. Their job was to individually stamp each cake with a design of the portcullis of Pontefract Castle, which still appears on the sweets today.
A couple of these companies went on to become national names, George Bassett and Co, which invented Liquorice Allsorts, (ultimately being absorbed into Cadbury) whereas Dunhills, the original maker of Pontefract Cakes, was acquired by German confectionary giant Haribo in 1994. And that answered my question, with rather more to it than I thought, of how Haribo ended up in Yorkshire.
So, with some of my questions answered, it was time to move onto the others. Why Spanish? Well, that’s easy enough, with the UK not being to produce enough liquorice it therefore became expensive and we started to import it, initially from Spain, remember that Spanish founder of the Dominican Order, then Italy and Turkey. And Pomfret Cakes? Well, it turns out that the original Norman name of Pontefract was Pomfret and that’s what Dunhill originally called his sweets.
So, that’s it, the 1000 year old story of liquorice and how Haribo, one of the world’s largest sweet manufacturers ended up with a factory in a small town in south Yorkshire.
Of course, Yorkshire folk being Yorkshire folk, who can turn clarty rhubarb fields into a tourist attraction, have also created liquorice tourism in and around Pontefract. And, if liquorice really is your predilection, then there is no better time to visit than at the annual Liquorice festival which will be held from 09-10 July 2022.
For more details: https://experiencewakefield.co.uk/event/liquorice-festival/