A day in the life: Sweet Roots

Categories: Behind the stalls

In a new series, Luke Mackay goes behind the scenes with Borough’s traders to find out what makes them tick. This month: Sweet Roots

Images: Adrian Pope

Act one, scene one

“Have you seen my liquorice, Sara?”

“Er, what? No.”

“Are you sure? I left it on the table.”

“What does it look like?”

“Sort of like a twig”

“Oh. I threw a twig in the bin. It was a twig.”

“That was my liquorice.”

“It looked like a twig.”

Act one, scene 2

“If you chew that twig thing in public, WHILE wearing that bloody flat cap, I will NOT walk beside you. You look ridiculous.”

Bundle of liquorice root

My wife, like most people in this country, doesn’t know much about liquorice. We used to—we basically invented it, in its modern form, in Yorkshire. But now if I say ‘liquorice’, you probably say ‘allsorts’, and conjure up an image of Bertie Bassett.

Not so the Italians—and particularly Lucas Giuliani, who is working passionately and hard to change our perceptions with his business, Sweet Roots, located in the Green Market. I spent Thursday with him on his stall and listened to him talk about liquorice for literally hours with nary a breath—he’s a bit of a force of nature and I knew within seconds of meeting him that he’d done his time in restaurant kitchens. You just know—there’s a twitchy energy and drive that ‘normals’ don’t have. A glint in the eye, a swagger. With Carlo, his assistant on the stall, they must surely be the most handsome traders in Borough.

He and Carlo talk customers eloquently through a thousand years of history, offer samples of everything from 100 per cent pure liquorice which is, shall we say, ‘challenging’ (yet weirdly addictive), to salted liquorice candies and liquorice and chilli sweets, liquorice powder, and of course the sweet roots of the stall’s namesake, which is what it’s all about, really.

Luke Mackay holding a block of solid liquorice

Gentle aniseed sweetness
These bundles of ‘twigs’ are shipped in from Italy in 1kg faggots, and are the genesis for all things liquorice. The first thing that Lucas did when we met was snap one in half and tell me to chew on it. After a couple of minutes of gentle chewing, the ‘twig’ surrenders its magic and fills your mouth with gentle aniseed sweetness. I can’t stop chewing them now—I have one in my car and others deposited among various pockets and bags. My name is Luke and I am addicted to sweet roots. There are worse things to be addicted to.

The star of the show on the stall, though, is the vast block of what those in the know call ‘hard juice’; a slab, split into three, of black gold—pure liquorice, dark as hell and shining like polished mahogany in the sunlight. It looks like it should contain the DNA of prehistoric mosquitos and to handle it and smell it is to step into history. I am a liquorice convert. Lucas, being a chef, is passionate about liquorice as an ingredient—in sweet and savoury cooking. He rattles off experiments that he has done with everything from wild game, to chocolate brownies.

I left the stall with a bag of various liquorice products and a thousand ideas buzzing around my brain on how best to use them. This is the wonder of Borough Market, even for old timers like me; there is always something new, something to get excited about, something wonderful. This week: liquorice.

Read Luke’s recipe for rabbit with liquorice & salsify