Family: Fabaceae (pea family)
Parts used: roots and stolons
Licorice has been used since ancient times both as a food and a medicine. The ancient Greeks named it glycyrrhiza from the words glukos (sugar) and riza (root) since it has a high content of sugars: saccharose (3%), and glucose (3%). In Sanskrit, it was called "sugar root," and in Chinese "sweet herb."
In Paris, near the end of the 18th century, a drink was served that was called "coco" because it was usually served in half a coconut, made from dried powdered licorice root. It became all the rage and was sold in cafés, on the boulevards and in public gardens.
An important licorice trade still exists in the West, since it is used to flavor tobacco.
"In the liquorice fields at Pontefract my love and I did meet…" John Betjeman
The British are extremely fond of "liquorice" sweets; the selection ranges from "allsorts" to torpedoes, comfits, cream rocks, sandwiches, buttons and sticks! Licorice was brought to England by the crusaders in the Middle Ages, and it began to be grown in monastery gardens for its therapeutic uses. In the 14th century Chaucer wrote in his poems of people using licorice to sweeten their breath. Among those who cultivated it were the friars of Pontefract Abbey in Yorkshire, and in the ensuing centuries licorice became a major industry in the town of Pontefract. Today a licorice festival is held there annually. Among the treats you can sample are licorice candies called "Pontefract cakes" or "pomfrets," which date to the 17th century, or even licorice-flavoured cheese and ice cream!
Originally from Mediterranean regions, licorice is a perennial plant with a woody stem and dark leaves; its mauve and cream-coloured pea-shaped flowers appear in summer. It can reach two metres in height and is grown for its roots. Licorice needs rich moist soil to develop. Until the 13th century, licorice was obtained exclusively from plants growing in the wild.
Both in Europe and Asia, licorice enters into many traditional medicinal preparations. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is used to "harmonize" the various ingredients in medicinal formulas and is said to stimulate the Qi or "vital energy," according to Chinese physicians.
In the 4th century BC, Theophrastus found it effective for easing coughs and relieving thirst. In the first century, Pliny also recommended it to calm coughs, while Dioscorides vaunted its ability to clear the voice and mellow the mood.
- powerful anti-inflammatory, since it contains glycyrrhizic acid
- digestive (mild laxative)
- refreshing tonic for the adrenal glands
Not to be confused with anise, licorice is widely used in confectionery-making to produce all kinds of candies and lozenges. In Scandinavia and Russia it is included in the production of aperitifs, liqueurs and beers.
It is best to buy it in sticks.
It can also be found in specialty groceries in extract or powdered form.
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