Licorice root has been prized for its rich flavor and for over 3,000 years – King Tut, Alexander the Great, Roman Emperor Caesar, the Ancient Chinese and the Native Americans were known to appreciate its natural properties.
Licorice root is also referred to as liquorice or sweetroot. Its name is derived from the Old French licoresse and the Ancient Greek word glukurrhiza, meaning “sweet root.” In the 1930s and early 40s in the U.S., licorice root was sold at the 10 cent store for kids to chew on.
Glycyrrhiza glabra, or European licorice, is one of the most common species growing wild in Southern and Central Europe as well as parts of Asia. G. uralensis also grows in China and G. lepidota in North America. It should be noted that although anise, aniseed, star anise, tarragon and fennel have flavor similarities to licorice, they are distinct. The sweetness in licorice comes from glycyrrhizin, a compound with pharmaceutical effects, that is more than 30x sweeter than sucrose.
The licorice plant, an herbaceous perennial and legume, grows from three to seven feet and the taproot can reach a depth of four feet. The licorice plant is late blossoming, with purple and white flowers and maroon seed pods. The root is ready to harvest after three to five years.
Licorice was brought to England by Dominican friars and the production of licorice candy began at Pontefract Abbey in Yorkshire. Pontefract had deep, sandy soil which made it one of the few places that licorice could successfully grow. Although licorice is no longer grown in Pontefract, the town holds an annual Liquorice Festival. “The Licorice Fields at Pontefract” was written by poet laureate Sir John Betjeman.
Throughout the years, licorice has been utilized as a medical treatment, culinary fragrance, and key ingredient for tasty sugar confections. It is even used in tobacco products, soft drinks, tea, brewing and in making aperitifs or liqueurs. Licorice root is available in liquid, dry, powdered, and peeled form. Manufacturers are supplied with licorice blocks, powder, or paste.