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.
(First verse – The Liquorice Fields of Pontefract by Sir John Betjeman, Poet Laureate)
He knew what he was talking about, they do make them sturdy in Pontefract!
But to matters in hand, like the stick of liquorice (or licorice – take your choice) that was a part of my own childhood, living as I did, not many miles from the town.
This tasty brown root, for those unfamiliar with it, was chewed raw, to extract the sweet juices within, whilst the pith was then unceremoniously discarded.
We kids also made 'Spanish Watter' (water) by soaking the root in a pop bottle filled with water. This was shaken over a day or two to produce a murky brown but delicious liquid, which we took with pride to our Summer field picnics, along with a filched stick of rhubarb and bag of sugar to dip it in. Happy days.
The liquorice bush is grown in several European and Asian countries as well as the Americas and has been consumed for around 4000 years, but was largely unknown in the UK.
There are competing theories as to how it reached our shores, among them that it was brought back by Crusaders from the middle east; by French monks who built a monastery in Pontefract in the mid 1500's; and that the roots were washed ashore from wrecked Armada ships. It is called 'Spanish' even today.
The stick-like roots are of a legume shrub which grows up to 7ft high, whilst the roots can grow up to 25ft. It is harvested around the 5th year. The roots are loaded with a glycerine compound sweeter than sugar and is actually the sweetest naturally grown product in the world.
It grows best in a deep, sandy, well drained soil, which Pontefract has in abundance. A large industry grew out of the fields of liquorice.
The liquorice bushes grew in local fields and this is where Sir John met his beloved and was moved to poetry. Sulky lips shaped for sin?? Oo'er Missus.
Initially used as a purgative medicine, it was also taken as a cold and cough relief and for stomach complaints.
In the 1700's, George Dunhill, a local chemist, boiled up the extract with sugar and created the soft black discs which we know today as Pontefract Cakes.
The creation of Liquorice Allsorts followed in later years and factories were built to cater for the demand for liquorice products.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, production of the bushes had declined however, as they were replaced by cheaper imported stock.
Local production ceased altogether, apart from one or two individuals who grew it in their gardens at home.
One local Pontefract farmer is bucking the trend and has given over part of his farm to re-establish large scale production.
The sticks can be bought from the farm shop and extensive café.
The farm also has guided tours of their produce( (www.farmercopleys.co.uk ).
Two factories making the product still exist in Pontefract, Haribo's and Monkhill's (the latter now being part of the Cadbury Group).
On certain days, the sweet scent of liquorice wafts over the entire town.
Several years ago, a Liquorice Festival was created and this event is held on one Sunday every July in the town centre. (It is on 13th July in 2014).
Entry is free and the Festival attracts upwards of 36,000 visitors each year.
There are over 70 stalls and a carnival feel about the place.
Activities include Liquorice Allsorts jewellery making, family workshops, interactive demonstrations, majorettes, children's rides and musical entertainment.
There are many choices of street food, including imaginative and delicious uses of liquorice pieces and flavouring.
Where else would you be able to sample and purchase such enticing oddities as Pork and Liquorice pies, Liquorice flavoured Sausages, Bacon, Ice Cream, Cheese and even Sea-Bass?
You can wash it all down with a bottle of Liquorice Stout.
For fans of the black gold, there is no finer day out.
The most practical way of attending is to use the Park and Ride system available from Pontefract Park. This operates from 9am to 5pm.
For further information about the Festival click here.