the sydney morning herald: liquorice, it takes allsorts

It’s been giving children purple tongues for years but now liquorice is the new black, writes Kate Gibbs. Liquorice is a sweet, glucose-ridden substance that divides us as much as Vegemite, tofu and Brussels sprouts. You either love it or hate it.

In Australia, liquorice is invariably confected, sandwiched with brightly coloured sugar, speckled with sugar balls, blunted with glucose, turned into jelly beans, dipped in chocolate or cut into gummy black batons.

But the Dutch add salt to theirs, making chewy, bite-sized sodium pellets that have been likened to the imagined taste of ear wax and salted volcanic ash. The Italians produce little tins of liquorice pellets, to be sucked and used as breath freshener. The internet reels with tales from horrified tourists who bought the salted liquorice by accident.

Even the cloying and old-fashioned variety has its polar reactions. On social networking site Facebook, the liquorice lovers marginally outweigh the liquorice haters but there is no ”liquorice is OK” fan club.

That doesn’t mean it’s not appearing on restaurant menus and being used by the more daring home cook.

At chef Luke Mangan’s restaurant, Glass, in Sydney, and his Melbourne-based The Palace, he serves a signature dish, liquorice parfait – a putty-coloured and dense cylinder of liquorice ice-cream served with lime wedges and a drizzle of lime syrup. Mangan uses Darrell Lea liquorice for the dish and when he made the parfait for Princess Mary of Denmark’s wedding, he shipped 30 kilograms of the raven sweet to Denmark. He’s served the parfait to Bill Clinton and Richard Branson, both of whom liked it, and he now flies Darrell Lea liquorice to his restaurant in Tokyo.

Mangan melts 65 grams of liquorice in 300 millilitres of cream to make four servings of parfait, then blends the mixture in a food processor and puts it through a sieve. Later, he adds an egg yolk, glucose, sugar and a whisked Pernod mix to the liquorice cream before freezing.

The dish was inspired by his childhood, when the ice-cream van would circle the neighbourhood. He would always choose the liquorice flavour. He describes the flavour as similar to aniseed, with a saccharine aftertaste and molasses heaviness that belies its sales pitch as a children’s sweet. And, indeed, not all children are suckers for it.

Children’s author Roald Dahl conjured a fascination with the black sweet and several characters tell stories about it being made from rats’ blood. In one tale, many rat-catchers had become millionaires selling rats to factories, which would dump 10,000 rats in a bubbling cauldron, then pour the steaming rat-stew on the floor, drive a steamroller over it and cut the gigantic black pancake into liquorice bootlaces, which were then sold to children.

Perhaps, then, the love-hate relationship with liquorice begins at childhood. This is not just because of the nostalgia of fantastic stories about its origins, nor because some parents see it as a healthy, almost medicinal sweet for children but because it turns up in places such as cough syrup for its ability to mask other ingredients.

Liquorice has appeared in many unlikely places. It is used to make cigarettes, washed through the tobacco during production. It features on ancient Chinese tablets and stockpiles were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Its strength of flavour may explain why it’s not common in traditional Australian home cooking. But it has become trendy in recent years in some top restaurants known for experimenting with ingredients. Heston Blumenthal has served salmon poached in liquorice gel at The Fat Duck for years.

And it’s appearing in the home, too.The owner of Herbie’s Spices in Rozelle, Ian Hemphill, says there has been an increase in the number of people interested in liquorice root and how it can be used in home cooking. Hemphill warns it can be overused and too much of the dried powder in a liquorice ice-cream, or too many stalks in a master stock, and the family may be left reeling and swear off its reappearance at the table forever.

But Hemphill says people who hate confectionery-grade liquorice will often like liquorice root when used, for example, in a Chinese recipe or heavy savoury stock. In savoury dishes, he says, the root adds a ”pungent freshness”, with a sweet back note. Its strong flavour pairs well with pork and duck and spices such as star anise, cassia spice, Sichuan pepper and chilli.

At the Junee Licorice and Chocolate Factory in rural NSW, which produces 1600 kilograms of liquorice a week, visitors are increasingly interested in how to use dried liquorice powder at home.

Owner Neil Druce recommends rubbing it on a lamb loin with salt, black pepper and olive oil and roasting it, served with braised artichokes and creamy mashed potatoes. He calls it liquorice lamb.

Mangan recommends trying liquorice with strong-flavoured meats, such as venison or a game bird, including pigeon. Adding the confectionery to a sauce and melting it gives the sauce a glazed consistency and liquorice flavour.

”I use it with game dishes that are quite robust and flavoursome,” he says. ”It’s quite a strong, dominant flavour so you don’t want to be playing around with seafood and things like that.”

The message for the home cook, however, is to start out slowly. Adding a half-quantity of liquorice to a recipe is a good way to sort the real liquorice lovers from the allsort haters.

This article first appeared in Good Living in The Sydney Morning Herald on 22 June 2010.