Liquorice root

Categories: Product of the week

An underappreciated treat from the sun-baked toe of southern Italy

Calabria, the sun-baked toe of southern Italy, is something of a food-lover’s paradise, famous for its olive oil, bergamot oranges, aubergines and ’nduja. Among the region’s defining products is its liquorice root, which is protected with PDO status and widely acknowledged to be the best in the world.

“I get all of my liquorice from Calabria. It grows prolifically there—it’s everywhere, from the sea to the mountains,” says Lucas Giulani, owner of Sweet Roots. “I take a strain from the plains of Sibari, from the Romano family who have had a liquorice business for more than 60 years. They simply go up there and dig it out—it’s biodynamic, which means there has been no human intervention at all. No fertilisers, no irrigation. It’s totally natural and grows spontaneously, year-round.”

The roots are then dried in kilns. “During summer this can almost be done at natural temperatures—it easily reaches 40C in Calabria,” Lucas explains. “It means the roots are a nice bright colour, with a strong sweet flavour. It is probably the biggest strength of my business—nobody else in the UK has this sort of root.”

Older customers
To those of you used to seeing liquorice only in its hard, shiny, candied form, it might come as a surprise that this woody plant is—quite literally—the root of all such sweets. While liquorice root has now largely fallen out of favour in the UK, “it used to be incredibly popular in this country,” says Lucas. “The best thing when I first opened the stall was the older customers who would come and say, ‘Ah, I used to chew this when I was a kid!’ They were very happy to see it again, and it was great.”

Now, though, appreciation is growing once more. “I’ve built up some loyal customers who are really passionate about it, which I love, and liquorice is becoming quite fashionable—I’ve noticed it being used in restaurants and a lot of mixologists and pastry chefs regularly come to the stall.”  

Simply grab a stick and chew on it to unleash its complex aniseedy flavours; use it to infuse into syrups or sauces; or get adventurous with the powdered version, which comes in two forms: shredded root and ground liquorice extract. “For the latter, the root is washed in water, cooked for five hours at 160C while being stirred constantly, causing the organic matter to caramelise,” Lucas explains. “The liquid is then strained and reduced for anything up to three days, until it forms a hard substance. It is this—which we also sell on the stall in hard form—that’s turned into a powder.”

A touch of sweetness
A trained chef, Lucas has myriad cooking suggestions. “You can use either powder, it just depends on your preference—the extract powder is a lot sweeter, though, so only use a little at a time,” he advises. “You can use it in place of sugar in coffee or hot chocolate, or I even like it in beer.”

Sprinkle it on lamb chops, or mushroom risotto. “It also goes very well with game, on venison fillet for example, with sausages, or in barbecue sauces. I’ve done a very successful salmon dish with a double cream reduction, wine, shallots and a little bit of liquorice—it just gives it a little bit of sweetness. It’s delicious. There are so many things you can do with it—don’t be scared to experiment.”