liquorice water

Thomas More, in his Utopia, Book II, writes of the Utopian people,

They drink wine made of grapes, apple or pear cider, or simple water, which they sometimes mix with honey or liquorice, of which they have plenty. (From Logan and Adam’s 1989 Cambridge Texts series.)

In the original Latin: “Nam aut uuarum uinum bibunt, aut pomorum, pirorumue, aut denique aquam nonnunquam meram, saepe etiam, qua mel, aut glycyrizam incoxerint, cuius haud exiguam habent copiam.” Glycyrrhiza is still the genus name for the liquorice plant. It has the same Greek root as “glycerine”, meaning “sweet”.

This passage from Utopia is, as far as I know, is the first time I’ve heard of liquorice water.

It was a popular made-at-home drink in Scotland in the early twentieth century known as “sugarelly”. Liquorice root (not the modern candy) was infused into water. William, in the Just William books, apparently drinks it regularly. (A letter written by the books’ author, Richmal Crompton, gives a recipe.) The Egyptian drink Erk-soos is another variation on it.

The plant, more generally, is native to southeast Europe and the Middle East, and has been grown in Britain since at least the thirteenth century, when Henvry II taxed it. Several of Chaucer’s characters chew the root. See also, “The Licorice Fields of Pontefract”.) Liquorice seems to have been a ubiquitous sweetener and medicine in ancient Egypt and Greece and medieval England, at very least. It’s 50-150 times sweet than table sugar, writes Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking. (2004, p. 418)

As for liquorice water more specifically, however: given the lack of detail of food which Henry VIII’s erstwhile lord chancellor otherwise provides, it seems certain that he knew it as a common, healthful drink. Other than Utopia and the Just William books (a rare pairing!), I wonder if the drink shows up in any other works of literature?

6 responses to “liquorice water”

  1. Mike Scott says:

    Google Book Search gives a number of occurrences, including works by Compton Mackenzie, E Nesbit and Charles Dickens.

  2. sworthen says:

    The Dickens one is particularly interesting since he calls it both “Spanish” and “intoxicating” (presumably metaphorically):

    I stole some bread, some rind of cheese, about half a jar of mincemeat (which I tied up in my pocket-handkerchief with my last night’s slice), some brandy from a stone bottle (which I decanted into a glass bottle I had secretly used for making that intoxicating fluid, Spanish-liquorice-water, up in my room: diluting the stone bottle from a jug in the kitchen cupboard), a meat bone with very little on it, and a beautiful round compact pork pie.

    That still puts it as a possibly categorized as a young person’s drink by the mid-nineteenth century when he wrote Great Expectations.

  3. Funny thing, here I am being driven apoplectic by recent adverts for “pear cider” – and here is Thomas More doing the same thing long ago…!

    Except not, of course, here is some moron translator doing that to him. For the record: cider is a drink made from apples. Perry is a drink made from pears. “Pear cider” isn’t even an oxymoron, it’s just ignorance. Grr.

  4. purpletigron says:

    So pirorumue is perry?

  5. arnold says:

    It’s used in the eighteenth century as a cough remedy: here’s Eliza Smith, The Compleat Housewife, or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion on ‘The Tar-Pills for a Cough’: ‘Take tar, and drop it on powder of liquorice, and make it up into pills; take two every night going to bed, and in a morning drink a glass of fair water, that liquorice has been three or four days steeped in; do this for nine or ten days together, as you find good.’

    See also Mason and Brown, Traditional Foods of Britain (1999), on ‘Pontefract Cakes’ (which aren’t cakes as such, but liquorice tablets): ‘The town of Pontefract in south Yorkshire was first noted for liquorice cultivation in the mid-1600s, though the plant had probably grown there for longer. The juice from its roots was used to treat colds and chest complaints.’

  6. sworthen says:

    Chaz – I have, on occasion, attempted to order “perry” and been driven to call it “pear cider” in order to more effectively explain what apparently nonsensical drink I was after. But yes, you’re right, the translator chose to call it pear cider, not More.

    purpletigron (In case you didn’t want to be identified any further!) – It’s in the genitive, so pirorumua, I guess. Awkward word! “pirum” is a pear, so translating it as “perry” keeps the parallel with the Latin much more closely.

    Arnold – Thank you for the recipe reference! I’m particularly glad to have an eighteenth century one since, with this handful of evidence, I have more documentation for the late nineteenth/early twentieth century for liquorice water than I do for anything earlier.

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