A writer uncovers a family connection with a sweet English confection.
In Banff one summer a few years ago, I opened a book of stories by Colette and read the following: “I had a sudden desire to buy those squares of licorice called ‘Pontefract cakes,’ whose flavor is so full-bodied that, after them, nothing seems eatable.” Colette in life was a famous gourmand, so it seemed odd that the semi-fictive self in her story, “The Rainy Moon,” would crave sweets that, as she said, “give such a vile taste to fresh eggs, red wine and every other comestible.” What was the appeal? And why did these vile, desirable treats have such an odd name?
There was (and is still) an old-style sweet shop in Banff called Welch’s Chocolate Shop, that had a long counter covered with big glass jars of soft and hard candies, sold by weight. I went in with just a touch of anticipatory swagger, and asked the woman behind the counter if she had ever heard of Pontefract cakes. “How much do you want?” she said without hesitation. I left with 100 grams.
The only serious licorice I had ever tasted until then—I’m not counting Twizzlers or Licorice Allsorts—was a Dutch kind that was dry, salty and bitter. But these Pontefract cakes, named after the north English town where they are made, were glossy, rich and sweet. They looked like thick coins, or wax letter-seals, with a lattice-like stamp on the face. When my 100 grams were gone, I bought more, and over the course of the summer I too became addicted to Pontefract cakes.
Much later, when I was back in Toronto and my addiction was in remission, a friend gave me a black kitten that I named Pontefract. When my mother heard the kitten’s name, she said: “Did I ever tell you that your grandfather was born in Pontefract?”
My grandparents’ fractious marriage blew apart when my mother was five years old, and she had little or no contact with her father or his Pontefract tribe after that. But after she died in 2007, I found in her papers a file of tidbits about her father’s side of the family. The file included a wedding photograph taken in 1910, in which my grandfather John Hamlett, who was then twenty, stands next to the bride, his thirty-two-year-old aunt Cissie. They share the same fox-like facial structure, and both give the impression that something is being held in under pressure of an important moment. The groom, Joseph Black, wears a placid look, a starched white collar and a double-breasted coat that magnifies his blacksmith’s physique. Next to him is Cissie’s brother Thomas, a good-looking serious priest, nicknamed Towser at school and known to his Benedictine order as Dom Denis. Seated in front of Towser is John’s sister Gertrude, in a huge Edwardian hat with flowers heaped around the brim; she holds a bouquet of flowers as big as the bride’s. Five years after this photo was taken, Gertrude got married in the same church, in Cissie’s wedding dress.
Licorice is a tall perennial plant whose extensive deep roots have been dug up and used as folk medicines for hundreds of years. It was first planted in the sandy loam around the Yorkshire town of Pontefract sometime before 1600, and distilled into curative extracts by monks. Medicinal licorice became so popular that in 1701 the municipality banned sales of licorice root outside the town in order to limit competition. In 1760, a chemist named George Dunhill mixed sugar and a gummy binding agent with licorice extract, and developed the soft coin-like lozenges that transformed licorice from medicine into candy. Pontefract cakes were a cottage industry till Dunhill’s competitor Wilkinson opened the first factory in 1888; by 1900, there were at least twenty-eight local manufacturers. In Yorkshire, there were two main career paths for the working class. “The lads worked at the pit and the lasses in the factory,” as one woman says in an oral history of the licorice works. The stuff the lasses worked with was called “Spanish,” perhaps because it was thought the licorice plant originated in Spain.
John Hamlett’s family was originally from County Kerry in Ireland. His grandfather John Hamlett was a soldier who moved to Yorkshire and died there at age forty-two. His father, also named John, was a colour sergeant at Pontefract who died in barracks in his early thirties. His mother Joanna, a midwife, was twenty-two at the time; John was four months old, and his sister Gertrude was three years old. My grandmother Freda told me that Joanna, her mother-in-law, was “real Sinn Fein Irish”—not a compliment in England—even though Joanna was born in Yorkshire. She sometimes stayed with her midwifery clients for up to six months if they were well off. I don’t know whether she was allowed to keep her children with her on these extended visits.
The most laborious part of making Pontefract cakes by hand was caking and stamping. The worker would grease a large tray, roll out the boiled licorice paste, cut it into pieces, lay the pieces out (about 240 per tray), flatten them with the palm into cakes, stamp each cake, remove the tray to a drying rack, grease another tray—and so on, a dozen trays an hour, eight hours a day.
Traditionally, Pontefract cakes were stamped with an image of Pontefract castle, the ominous fortress where in 1400 the deposed Richard II “was hack’d to death,” as Shakespeare put it in The Tragedy of Richard the Third, in which the town is called by its Elizabethan name, Pomfret. Oliver Cromwell called it “one of the strongest inland garrisons in the kingdom.” It was besieged several times during the Civil Wars, and by the time hostilities ended, it was a ruin.
John Hamlett became a soldier, briefly, during World War I and was recuperating in a military hospital when he met my grandmother Freda. They married, had four children, and made each other miserable. Freda told me her husband was “pathologically jealous.” When they split up in the mid-1930s their four children, my mother among them, were scattered in all directions. John earned his living as a postman and mail-sorter, and had some musical talent—my mother recalled seeing him play a Wurlitzer in a cinema. He died—of drink, according to Freda—in 1959.
John Hamlett’s sister Gertrude, of the huge flowered hat, also married unhappily. She went to the altar late, by the standards of the time; at age twenty-eight, she married a thirty-eight-year-old printer and soldier named Trevor. Thirteen months after his wedding, on July 1, 1916, he died with 20,000 other British soldiers during the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Gertrude had no children, never remarried, and spent her life working in children’s foster homes. The shock of her sudden widowhood, and the background trauma of the war’s butchery, reverberated in the names of the next generation. My mother’s middle name was Gertrude, and her youngest brother is called Trevor.
In 1953, John Betjeman rhapsodized the fields of Pontefract in a famous poem that begins: “In the licorice fields at Pontefract / My love and I did meet / And many a burdened licorice bush / Was blooming round our feet.” But the licorice works were already in decline, and the last licorice roots were ripped from the soil a decade later. The global market in chocolate had undermined the local integrated business of licorice candies, which now survives only on extracts of licorice root imported from southern Europe. Over 90 percent of the world licorice crop is used today to flavour tobacco.
In 2002, my mother and I and two of my sisters travelled from London to Yorkshire by train to meet a few dozen descendants of Cissie and Joseph, the couple in the wedding photo. Cissie’s grandson Johnny, who worked at the mines but not in them, picked us up at the station in a low-slung sports car. The gathering at his house a few miles from Pontefract felt more like a reunion than a first meeting. Our Yorkshire relatives’ sense of humour turned out to be eerily similar to whatever we had been nurturing in the colonies. We drank and laughed in Johnny’s backyard till it was too dark to see faces.
In Pontefract, we tried to find the house where my grandfather was born, but though my mother could remember the street, the number in her mind didn’t match any on the nearly identical cottage-style houses. We took pictures of each other standing in the empty road, looking confused. Pontefract Barracks, the castellated nineteenth-century garrison where my great-grandfather the colour sergeant paraded and died, still stands, but the last soldiers departed in 1963, and the brick building is now filled with commercial offices.
I could find only two companies that still make Pontefract cakes. We went to the licorice works of what used to be Dunhill’s Confectionary, housed in a brightly painted old building at the bottom of a steep curved road. Dunhill’s was bought out in 1994 by the German candy firm Haribo, which in German fashion tightened up standards and closed the automated factory to visitors. A middle-aged security guard said from his side of a grilled window that there was nothing I was allowed to see but the tiny room in which he was sitting. But when he heard I had come all the way from Canada, he went away and came back with a slim paperback called Talking Spanish: Voices From the Local Liquorice Industry. He slid the book under the grille and said: “Don’t tell anyone I gave it to you.” In the factory shop next door, I bought two bags and a tin of Pontefract cakes.
In London, I gave my uncle Trevor one of my bags of Pontefract cakes. My pleasure at his delighted reaction was crimped by the realization that my mother had planned the same gift, and that I had inadvertently spoiled that part of the occasion for her. She never saw any of her English family again.
Recently I bought a bag of Haribo Pontefract cakes at Sweet Thrills, a candy store on Roncesvalles Avenue, near my house in Toronto. The label says that the contents are “genuine,” and prints the date of Dunhill’s original recipe in an old-timey font, but something has changed. These cakes are more square and much less glossy than the ones I remember, and the words “Haribo original” have been added above and below the castle stamp. They taste about the same, but I can’t eat them with the pleasure I once did, ever since a friend I shared some with pointed out to me, a vegetarian, that they contain gelatin, made from animal bones. I also find that knowing about the broken family histories from the town of the broken bridge has changed my feeling for this candy, which I first encountered in a sunlit French story. Pontefract cakes are linked for me now with the military husbands who died young, with my grandfather who disappeared in a cloud of jealous ill-will, with those women and children of four generations who found their families suddenly without a man.
I still have the licorice tin I got at the Haribo shop in Pontefract. It’s good for storing tea bags.