What’s good for your immune system, helps digestion, was once used as a cough remedy and is now a delicious sweetie? Sally Hammond knows.
If you’d asked me whether the ultra-sweet powder I was tasting had anything to do with Guinness or the Greeks, I’d probably have laughed outright.
Yet our knowledgeable guide at Green Grove Organics assured us that licorice (or liquorice, both spellings are correct), known to the Greeks since at least 3BC and possibly as far back as 4000 years, is also used to flavour that much-revered Irish stout. It’s equally valuable for easing constipation, and its use in confectionery and thirst-quenching drinks has been known for centuries too.
Green Grove Organics has only added the Junee Licorice & Chocolate Factory to its family business in the last few years. It was the ideal adjunct as flour is a major ingredient of licorice confectionery – that black, chewy sweet we all love – and Green Grove’s carefully acquired name for milling the finest organic flour available made this an ideal mix.
Licorice is obtained from the taproot of the plant Glycyrrhiza glabra (“sweet root”) and although it packs a hefty sweet-hit 50 times that of regular sugar, the real sweetener is that it’s acceptable for diabetics to consume – although we’re told they should beware of commercial products, as sugar is often added in the manufacturing process.
Nature’s black beauty has also been credited with being the most efficient known builder of our immune systems, although admittedly most of us don’t give that much thought as we’re munching through a metre-long strap of the stuff.
In the Middle-Eastern and South-West Asian countries where it originated, licorice was originally valued as a cough remedy. Even today we see it in cough mixtures and throat pastilles, but in Yorkshire in the 16th Century at Pontefract monastery, licorice was first concentrated into small blocks that resembled present-day confectionery.
The plant itself grows to only about two metres, but the taproot can be 120cm long. So how to harvest a root without wasting the plant? There are two ways.
You can simply uproot the plant (the frond-like top can be used to create food-grade particle board, or the crown stored for replanting next season) or copy the Russians – where some plants are reputed to be over 400 years old – and plant the bushes over subterranean caves so that the roots can be snipped off without disturbing the entire plant.
Green Grove is attempting to grow licorice on the property, although the drought is playing havoc with their plans. The plan is to harvest the meandering lateral roots, but for now the company imports the grey-green powder from the US then cooks it up until it turns into the inky black sticky mass we know so well.
Neil Druce, one member of the family that runs this unique project in the small NSW Riverina town of Junee, half an hour from Wagga Wagga, is justly proud of what has been achieved here.
As we sit in the rustic Cafe de Mill and chat over hot chocolate Neil briefly recaps the history of this 1935 mill that was snatched from destruction. It closed in the 1970s and, after a fire gutted the end section, was bought in 1998 by Green Grove Organics. Carefully, it was rebuilt to become a lovely homespun calico and pine low-tech reality. All the timbers used in its restoration are from the 1850s and on one counter, from an old shop, we see 1884 clearly stamped on an edge.
Even the railway siding where trains once loaded up with bushel bags of flour has been preserved.
In fact, flour is still obtained using old-style gravity-fed milling here, and Green Grove continues to supply major organic bakers throughout the state. It also grinds organic wheat, rye, barley, oats, maize, the ancient grain spelt (sometimes called pharaoh wheat), as well as milling grains to order and making bread mixes.
We walk through from the brick side where milling takes place (flour is combustible, I’m told, so it’s always stored away from timber) and pass a glassed-in section busy with people shovelling away, Oompah Loompah-style. Here, organic Belgian-style couverture chocolate is used to make 40kg batches of chocolate-coated fruit and nuts, which are polished to a rich gloss in huge gleaming copper barrels visible through viewing windows. A nice touch is that they do this using a true blue Aussie substance: knobs of acacia gum.
Neil’s dream is to raise chocolate production to outstrip licorice, which already rolls out two tonnes every week, some of it for export.
Back again in the cafe at the end of the tour we deliberate like children on what to buy. Chocolate-dipped licorice? Coffee beans? Macadamias? Then there’s dark chocolate ginger, milk chocolate-covered almonds and chocolate-coated almonds to consider . . .
Finally, with purchases made, our consciences are clear. Neil has confirmed that we’re actually eating health food – licorice that will help our immune systems and aid digestion, chocolate crammed with antioxidants, and fibre-rich fruit and nuts. What’s more, it’s all organic.
Details: Green Grove Organics
Junee Licorice & Chocolate Factory, 8-18 Lord St, Junee, NSW
OPEN // 10am-4pm phone // (02) 6924 3574
WEBSITE // www.greengroveorganics.com