Italian flavors: Calabria Liquorice
- WTI Magazine #159 Jan 21, 2023
The liquorice plant was most likely imported to Calabria by the Greeks around 700 BC. These places have the ideal microclimate and habitat that allowed the development of a different ecotype, as shown by the genetic mapping that allows its differentiation from liquorice coming from other sources.
To understand the origins and development of this activity in the region, one needs to go back to the 14th century and the logic of the latifundia. It is no coincidence that almost all manufacturers were owned by noble feudal families who, with ridiculously small investments and, above all, without compromising the usual agricultural cycle, managed to slowly consolidate the still uncertain liquorice market. In this first phase, the grower and processor were the same: the raw material was harvested from the latifundium and processed in wooden shacks.
Liquorice was considered a “extra” that accompanied the grain harvest. It was only in the mid-19th century, when the agricultural economy began to require larger investments and production choices, that many farms in the Ionian band, especially between Corigliano and Isola Capo Rizzuto, were dedicated to intensive farming; this led to the disappearance of the wild root, while the cultivated root was rarely planted and yielded mixed results.
Considered a weed, liquorice root was dug up every four years, at the end of its maturation cycle. The land was used to grow wheat the first year, was left fallow the second, became a pasture in the third and, only in the fourth year, was the liquorice harvested, which in the meantime added nitrogen to the soil. Among other things, the liquorice root processing factories, the so-called “conci”, needed large quantities of firewood for heat. The availability of the latter was the full prerogative of the noble families.
The export of Calabrian liquorice, already considerable during the first half of the 19th century and accounting for 70% of Italian production, was consolidated and expanded in the second half of the century, and again in the first two decades of the 1900s.
The companies had almost tacitly divided the various areas of influence: Barracco (Isola Capo Rizzuto) exported particularly to Denmark and Norway, the Count d'Afile, previously Solazzi (Corigliano), to Switzerland and the Netherlands and Longo (San Lorenzo del Vallo) and Zagarese (Rende) to Belgium and France.
Other companies, such as those of the Marquises Martucci and the Barons Amarelli, that of the Napoli family of Crotone, and the Princes Pignatelli (Cerchiara), sold mainly in Italy.
The causes that led to the economic decline and then disappearance of this business are not different from those that caused the ruin of other regional products between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century: delayed upgrading of the infrastructures supporting industry and the absence of incentives for the production and export of the product.
In the case of liquorice, the final blow 1935 and 1940 came from foreign competition. For several years, American confectionery giants bought up Calabrian root leaving local companies without raw materials and who soon were in difficulty because they couldn't afford the artificial rise in prices. Soon, the game was over and production disappeared in Calabria.
Today, Calabrian liquorice production does not exceed 5% of Italian demand but, thanks to the recognition of its Protected Designation of Origin producers and processors are confident in a recovery of the sector, especially due to its superior quality which now is increasingly recognized by the market.
The fact remains that digging and harvesting the roots are strenuous activities are and remain the prerogative of expert farmers and gatherers who must always pay close attention so that the deep roots system is preserved for future harvests.
The production of liquorice extract is a physical process based on the extraction of water-based solutes from the root of Glycyrrhiza glabra. The roots are at first ground in a hammer mill. The comminution of the solid takes place wet with the addition of water. The slurry obtained is pumped into closed tanks called “extractors”. At the end of the cycle the solids are separated from the liquid solution. The clarified juice is first concentrated in an evaporation plant. In a second concentration step, the extract is pumped into bubble cookers called “cucitori”.
At this point, the extract is a paste that is poured onto trays that, once cooled, become “loaves” of liquorice. The solidified loaves are sold as such as a semi-finished industrial product or can be fed to the extrusion process. The extract is extruded through special dies to obtain pieces of various sizes and shapes. The pieces are then collected and dried in cabinet dryers. In the final step, the pieces are polished with water vapour.
Liquorice is native to the Mediterranean and Middle East. Calabria belongs to this area of origin because it overlooks the Mediterranean and is completely surrounded by it. The region is characterized by great environmental variability. Liquorice prefers salty soils and those periodically flooded or with a high water table, but in any case, warm and deep. It is also suitable for dry soils and is resistant to frost. However, the salinity causes the production of thinner roots and rhizomes, even if richer in sugar than those grown in less salty soil.
For this reason, both clay-siliceous and clay-limestone soils are suitable for cultivation as well as land near the sea. Just think of the great presence of wild liquorice on both the Ionian and Tyrrhenian coasts. Its ideal habitat is the same as that of grapes and olives. In Italy, it grows wild in several limited areas of the south but but thrives, both cultivated and wild, especially in Calabria.
By Consorzio di Tutela della Liquirizia di Calabria with MiPAAf