Take a wander around Rob and Heather Copleys’ farm and you probably wouldn’t give the unremarkable plants growing between the weeds in one small field a second glance.
Why would you? There’s nothing that special about them to be honest, but dig a little deeper – a lot deeper in fact – and you’ll find that this tiny quarter of an acre plot is totally unique.
That’s because the slightly overgrown spot next to a track and a weather-beaten hut in the middle of West Yorkshire is, incredibly, home to the only commercially grown liquorice in the UK.
The crop’s pioneering grantor owners, who farm berries, rhubarb, asparagus, maize as well as lamb and beef, run the thriving Farmer Copleys venture on the edge of Pontefract, a town whose history is inexorably linked with the sweet root plant made famous by Bertie Bassett.
Cluniac Monks and the de Lacy family who built the town’s castle brought it back from its native Middle East after the Crusades in the 1500s for its medicinal qualities.
By 1900 there were 10 liquorice factories in the town, which flourished until the Americans arrived bearing chocolate in World War 2. Now there are just two.
Heather launched the farm shop from the side of her house 14 years ago “for something to do when the children were little” and had a bell so she could dash from the house when customers arrived.
Today she oversees a burgeoning empire which turns over £2.2 million a year while remaining homely with farm provenanced food at its heart… and with the taste of nostalgia at its core.
“we’re business people who happen to be farmers”
“Older visitors to the farm shop and Moo café always told lovely stories about how they used to buy the hardened root and chew it as a breath freshener when they were young, so it got us thinking about picking up the gauntlet to keep history alive,” said Heather.
Parents-of-two Heather and Rob, who describe themselves as “business people who happen to be farmers” rather than the other way round, began their research and sourced cuttings from growers who still had ancestors of one or two of the town’s original plants.
Heather said: “Our first big harvest will be this autumn when we’ll take some of the roots and propagate them in our greenhouses before replanting them and extending the plot, hopefully to a full acre.”
It would have been sooner but eight years ago, after they planted their first garth, a relative inadvertently dug it up as he cleared space for a car park outside the expanding shop.
Five years on – you have to be patient as the plant takes time to spread its roots 25 feet slowly through the deep, sandy soil – the extract from the first harvest of 100 plants is earning star billing in some of the mouthwatering liquorice and pork pies, sausages and of course, Pontefract cakes, beautifully presented in the nearby shop.
To reach our plate or sweet bag, the macerated root is boiled to form a thick syrupy extract used to infuse other products or added to demerera sugar, flour and syrup and cooled until solid to make the black stuff we love… or loathe. Visit Pontefract on a Wednesday, boiling day, and you can smell it.
Copleys Farm has applied to the EU to have the product safeguarded under a Protected Designation of Origin order, which will ensure the new-found revival remains exclusive to Pontefract long into the future.
But Heather readily admits: “It’s very much a Marmite kind of sweet. You either love it or hate it. Luckily I love it, but if you’ve never tried it infused in bacon you haven’t lived.
“Feedback from people in the area has been really positive and we’ve even had orders from abroad. Customers of all ages are enjoying its revival. It’s a low fat alternative to sugar, has pain reducing qualities and is a healthy alternative to sweets so mums like it.”
Apart from the GI squaddies’ intervention, its decline in popularity was accelerated because it’s such a labour intensive plant, takes years to grow and is, at Copleys’, grown organically without pesticides so weeds are a constant issue.
Ken Copley, a farmer for 60 years from a family that’s been in the business for 140, still works the land with son Rob and has been astounded by the interest in the liquorice side of the business: “The aim now is to make sure everybody around the world knows about Pontefract and its sweet history.”
Tens of thousands of visitors flocked to July’s annual Pontefract Liquorice Festival where Farmer Copleys gave demonstrations of the plant’s versatility and sold everything from stout to sausages and tea.
Heather said: “It’s all go because we’re now getting ready to harvest in September, but a lot of our work away from actual farming is about educating schoolchildren and visitors of all ages about where their food comes from.
“If we can instill some local community pride in something that was in danger of becoming forgotten then we will be protecting part of the nation’s history and I think that’s very important. If we can play our small part then that’s great.”
Visit the Farmer Copleys website at www.farmercopleys.co.uk
Pictures courtesy of Roy Kilcullen. Visit his website here