Liquorice: “The Spoonful of Sugar that Helps the Medicine Go Down”

By Sandra Jergensen

Licorice 1If you wish “To make Juise of Liquorish in the beginning of Maye” à la Jane Baber you need to do some advance planning.[i] Chances of finding suitable fresh liquorice root are slim; you will most likely need to grow your own. By starting prep work immediately you should be ready for juicing, roughly three years from now. While recipes often have many steps and tedious wait periods, just acquiring the ingredient list for “Juise of Liquorish” makes a month-aged fruitcake appear as petty convenience food.  Even though growing proper liquorice, a small leguminous plant, takes “three summers for the roots to grow to full size,” it is worth the investment.[ii] Good, fresh liquorice tastes as good as it is for you. In fact, it may just be the “spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down” that Mary Poppins advocated.

Liquorice has been cultivated on a large scale in England beginning in Pontefract, Yorkshire in the seventeenth century. Even before the Reformation, the region’s monastery popularised liquorice, turning this area into what is still the center of English liquorice tradition as the home of the ever-beloved Pontefract cakes. These coin-sized disks of candied black liquorice stamped with a castle and an owl may have been made as early as 1614.[iii]  While I am unaware of the location where Jane Baber’s seventeenth-century Book of Receipts was written, her use of the “juise of licquorish” is strikingly similar to a recipe for making Pontefract cakes.[iv] The inclusion of such a similar recipe at the time of her manuscript production in 1625 seems downright trendy including considering the fashionable status of liquorice at that time in England. The connection is not just the use of liquorice, but an almost identical preparation of the ubiquitous confection.

While I realized that while neither recipe advertises candy, they both produce it. Baber’s technique, like the recipe for Pontefract cakes, direct the cook to make a combined liquorice root, water and sugar to be cooked and thickened, and shaped into rolls. The Baber recipe also calls for the addition of hyssop, rosemary and colesfoot for added flavor or medicinal use. Even without the precision of a candy thermometer, Baber’s candy-making instruction is spot-on for reaching a “soft-ball” stage of candy making where the liquid has boiled out and the sugars have begun to harden into a tacky, sticky consistency that would allow you to “see the bottome of the bason [while you are] stirringe it very still.” If you follow the directions as written, you should end up with the classic chewy sweet we expect liquorice to be, and the ever-popular Pontefract cakes still are.

Licorice 3In its purest form, Glycyrrhiza glabra, or liquorice, trumps cane sugar’s sweetness fifty times over. Yet the foil is in the bitter flavor it also possesses, which inhibits some tasters from recognizing the intensity of the plant’s sweet flavor. Oddly enough, the sweetness also depends on the way in which liquorice root is cut. The thicker the cut, the sweeter the root seems, while a thinner cut tastes saltier and a bit bitter. Unfortunately I don’t know the result of stamping them all together in a mortar as Baber directs in the recipe. Even so, she covers her bases, calling for the addition of the “three or fower ounces of redd suger Candy.” Although sweet with candy, and perhaps sweet like candy, the classic English treat (Allsorts, anyone?) had more value than a pleasing, sugary sweetness on the tongue: it was most likely intended as medicine.

While liquorice was also a frequent flavoring for stout and gingerbread in early modern England, liquorice was primarily used medicinally. It was a common remedy to treat ailments such as inflammation, mild constipation and the “rume” (excessive mucousal secretions), as Baber's recipe recommends. Liquorice’s popularity rose, becoming a go-to flavoring for medicine rather than just the medicine itself. Cough lozenges, teas, tonics and ticcatares could be infused with liquorice to cover up less pleasant tastes.

It was most likely in that shift from medicine to medicinal flavoring and candy-like medicine to candy that the original usage was largely forgotten. Yet, all those who enjoyed the flavor du jour, may have not be cognizant of the benefits--that the “spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, in a most delightful way.”  Jane Baber’s medicinal receipt “To make Juise of Liquorish in the beginning of Maye” may have not been a recipe for her favorite candy, but it yielded dry noses, happy bowels, and surprisingly eager recipients.

 


[i] Baber, Jane. Book of Receipts, 1635. MS 108. Wellcome Library, London, f. 21v.

[ii] "Liquorice", The Oxford Companion to Family and Local History, ed. David Hey, (Oxford University Press, 2008;  Oxford Reference, 2009), date Accessed 8 Apr. 2013 <http://www.oxfordreference.com.ezproxy.uta.edu/view/10.1093/acref/9780199532988.001.0001/acref-9780199532988-e-1128>.

[iii] Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 455.

[iv] http://www.wakefield.gov.uk/CultureAndLeisure/HistoricWakefield/Liquorice/recipe.htm

Sandra Jergensen is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas, Arlington. She was involved in a class project to transcribe Jane Baber's recipe book, led by Amy Tigner.


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