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The Story of Pontefract Cakes

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

A confection that takes its name from the town of Pontefract in Yorkshire, England, has a long and intriguing history. The candies are made out of liquorice, and some people actually say they like them.

What an irresistibly attractive sweet.

What an irresistibly attractive sweet.

The Arrival of Liquorice in England

Without the liquorice plant there would be no such thing as a Pontefract Cake. The plant is thought to have arrived in England in the 11th century, and the blame for that rests on the shoulders of monks and crusaders.

As the warrior Christians marched around the Mediterranean Sea to take the message of their peaceful and loving god to Muslims in the Holy Land they came across liquorice plants. They liked the reputed medicinal qualities of the plant and took some roots back home.

Liquorice is the English spelling; licorice is American spelling.

Another story has liquorice arriving with the Roman Conquest in 43 CE. When the Roman Empire collapsed they left liquorice plants as a fond memento of the occupation.

Liquorice seems not to have troubled the history books much until the eighteenth century when the enterprising Dunhill family rented land in Pontefract Castle to grow liquorice plants. They did so to satisfy the growing demand among physicians who were using liquorice to cure everything from constipation (it works) to cancer (it doesn’t work) with varying degrees of success. It was also used to treat sick horses, which tells us something about its potency.

The Liquorice Plant

Permit, a brief diversion into horticultural. The liquorice plant you will be unsurprised to learn is not native to Britain. Glycyrrhiza glabra, to give its formal name, is “native to dry scrubland or damp ditches in the Mediterranean region and south-western Asia.”

It seems the plant likes deep sandy soil and one of the few places where such growing condition exists is Pontefract, Yorkshire. Although, it cannot be said that location suffers from the abundance of warmth that Glycyrrhiza glabra likes.

The business part of the herb is an extract from its roots. But, just as a vine takes at least five years to produce grapes worthy of turning into wine, the liquorice plant needs five to seven years before it can deliver up its bounty.

Slowly, the commercial growing of the liquorice plant in and around Pontefract dwindled as it became cheaper to import the roots from its native region in the Middle East. Now, Heather and Robert Copley have begun growing liquorice again on their Pontefract farm.

Glycyrrhiza glabra, or a Pontefract Cake in the wild.

Glycyrrhiza glabra, or a Pontefract Cake in the wild.

Back at Pontefract Castle

By 1760, the Dunhill family was doing very well with its liquorice growing business and then George Dunhill had what some people think of as a brilliant idea; he mixed sugar with the liquorice-root extract and “created a chewable non-medicinal lozenge” (BBC Travel).

It seems the public loved what became called the Pontefract Cake, although it wasn’t a cake in the sense of baked flour and eggs. Pontefract Cakes are about ¾-inch (2 cm) in diameter and one-fifth of an inch (4 mm) thick; roughly the size of a U.S. silver dollar or a U.K. two pound coin. Dunhill called them Pomfret Cakes, harking back to the original Norman name for Pontefract, and they were also known as Yorkshire Pennies.

We’re like liquorice. Not everybody likes liquorice, but the people who like liquorice really like liquorice.

— Jerry Garcia, The Grateful Dead

Within four decades of George Dunhill’s flash of genius there were about 10 factories churning out the little black discs at the rate of 25,000 a day. Each was hand-stamped with a stylized replica of Pontefract Castle.

But, such is the price of progress that many of these businesses were swallowed up by bigger ones. In 1994, the original manufacturer of Pontefract Cakes was taken over by the German company, Haribo.

Business remains brisk and, in 2012, Haribo announced expansion in the shape of a new factory, three miles away in Castleford.

Pontefract Cakes’ Cousin

Charlie Thompson was a salesman working for the George Bassett confectionery company in Sheffield, about 50 miles south of Pontefract. The factory was churning out sweets that were layers of liquorice and sugary goop, mixed with coconut.

While making his pitch to a candy wholesaler, Thompson knocked over his box of samples on the counter creating a colourful display. The wholesaler looked at the assortment and placed an order for the mixture.

the-story-of-pontefract-cakes

Back in Sheffield, Thompson was tasked with giving a name to the creation and he called Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts. In 1989, the Bassett Company became involved in a game of corporate pass the parcel. First, it was acquired by Cadbury Schweppes, then Kraft bought Cadbury and turned itself into Mondelez International. Somewhere along the line, the Trebor and Maynard companies were involved, but with so many mergers and acquisitions it’s nearly impossible to untangle ownership.

The Allsorts are still made in Sheffield as well as in several other locations around the world and are still marketed under the Bassett brand. The same applies to Pontefract Cakes, for which there is an inexplicable worldwide demand.

Bertie Bassett is the mascot for Liquorice Allsorts.

Bertie Bassett is the mascot for Liquorice Allsorts.

Bonus Factoids

  • The active ingredient in liquorice root is called glycyrrhizin, and it’s 50 times sweeter than sugar.
  • In 2004, a Yorkshire woman was admitted to hospital after overdosing on Pontefract Cakes. She was eating about 200 g of the candy a day to deal with chronic constipation, but the glycyrrhizic acid in the liquorice caused her potassium level to plummet. This leads to muscle failure and high blood pressure.
  • Napoleon Bonaparte was a great lover of liquorice; he chewed so much of it that it turned his teeth black.

Sources

  • “Licorice in Early English History.” RJ’s Licorice, November 27, 2014.
  • “Brand Fact Sheet: The Liquorice Story.” Cadbury, undated.
  • “Lovely Licorice Root.” Betsy Strauch, Mother Earth Living, September/October 2017.
  • “Woman ‘Overdoses’ on Liquorice.” BBC News, May 21, 2004.
  • “Growing Liquorice in West Yorkshire.” Caroline Beck, Gardens Illustrated, September 12, 2017.
  • “The Strange Story of Britain’s Oldest Sweet.” Mike MacEacheran, BBC Travel, July 11, 2019.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor