Pontefract cakes (also known as Pomfret cakes and Pomfrey cakes) are a type of small, roughly circular black sweet measuring approximately 2 cm in diameter and 4 mm thick, made of liquorice, originally manufactured in the Yorkshire town of Pontefract, England.
The original name for these small tablets of liquorice is a "Pomfret" cake, after the old Norman name for Pontefract. However, that name has fallen into disuse and they are now almost invariably labelled "Pontefract cakes". The term "cake" has a long history. The word itself is of Viking origin, from the Old Norse word "kaka".
The exact origins of liquorice growing in England remain uncertain. However, by the 16th century there is record of the activity, possibly via monastic gardens and as a garden crop for the gentry.
During the 17th century it was recorded as being grown in areas with alluvial soil overlying magnesian limestone such as in Surrey, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. Camden's Britannia of 1637 noted the crop in Worksop and Pontefract. By 1780 liquorice growing was concentrated almost wholly in Pontefract and in Surrey, around Godalming.
In Pontefract the growing of liquorice was done on plots of land behind people's houses. In a map of the 1648 Siege of Pontefract (reproduced in Chartres) the liquorice is indicated as being grown in "garths" either side of Micklegate, the street which runs between Pontefract's Market Place and the Castle.
In the 18th century liquorice was used as a medicine both for humans and for horses. The Pontefract Cake "was almost certainly a black cake, the portable lozenge used to make 'liquorish water', stamped with the castle lodge emblem of Pontefract to signify quality. This trade mark had been employed on Pontefract cakes since 1612, when the initials 'GS' were used, and are thought to be those of Sir George Saville, major local landowner; and a second die-stamp from 1720." It was only in the 19th century that it was used extensively for confectionery. Of the merchants in the eighteenth century George Dunhill (later bought by German confectioner Haribo) was the most important. He was also a grower of liquorice.
With the growth of Pontefract Cakes as confectionery the demand for liquorice outstripped the capacity of Pontefract growers to supply. By the late 19th century the twelve firms producing liquorice confectionery relied mainly on extract imported largely from Turkey.
Originally, the sweets were embossed by hand with a stamp, to form their traditional look (the workers who did this were known as "cakers" and were able to produce upwards of 30,000 per day), but now they are usually machinery formed. The embossed stamp was originally a stylised image of Pontefract Castle with a raven on the top bar, which is thought to have been in use for almost 400 years. When the first secret ballot in the United Kingdom was held in Pontefract on 15 August 1872, the ballot box used was sealed using a Pontefract cake stamp from Frank Dunhill’s factory, which shows the image of a castle and an owl.
Healthcare professionals have warned against overindulgence in Pontefract Cake after a 56-year-old woman was admitted to hospital following an overdose. The woman consumed about 200g daily, leading to dangerously low potassium levels and subsequent muscle failure. The European Commission recommends limiting consumption of the active ingredient, glycyrrhizic acid, to 100 mg or less per day.