The man behind specialist liquorice stall Sweet Roots
How did you end up at Borough Market?
I came to London in 2007 and began working as a chef in a gastropub thanks to a good friend of mine, Mario Prati, who runs the truffle stall at Borough Market. I was working 75-80 hours a week but when I did get the chance to go out, it usually meant coming here to the pub. After around four years, I decided to do something by myself and I had this crazy idea to do something with liquorice.
I have a natural instinct to do something unusual. Liquorice was very popular in this country until the 1960s, but then chocolate really took over and the popularity of liquorice decreased. Before that there was a history of it as a food in this country for more than 500 years, and for thousands of years as a medicine.
Some people think liquorice is aniseedy—it’s not. Basically those cheap sweets are mainly aniseed oil and very little liquorice—they should change the law! I wanted to do stuff that’s a little more special.
Do you remember the first time you tried it?
My first impression wasn’t very good! My father is a big fan of pure liquorice, which is very bitter, and my grandmother always used to have a massive bowl of it. It was too strong. When you’re a kid you have more of a sweet tooth.
Where does your liquorice come from?
I work with one of the oldest businesses on the planet. The same family has been trading liquorice on and off since medieval times. They have a beautiful estate in Rossano in the southern Italian region of Calabria.
Obviously technology has changed a little bit along the way but they still use pretty much the same technique, especially when it comes to conditioning the liquorice for their sweets. They do it by hand and it takes about three days. The roots themselves, I take a strain from the plains of Sibari. The guy I get it from has a small business there which has been in his family for more than 60 years.
What is special about Calabrian liquorice?
Liquorice grows all along the Mediterranean meridian. In Calabria it grows from the seaside all the way up to the mountains, and it’s possibly the best liquorice you can find in Europe. The roots are dried in kilns—it can easily reach 42-45C inside without any heating at all, so they dry at a natural temperature and all the goodness stays inside.
The roots are a nice bright colour and the flavour is very strong and sweet. It is probably the biggest strength of my business—nobody else in the UK has this kind of root.
We’ve heard you do some pretty salty stuff as well...
One of the great things about Borough Market is that we have so many people coming here from all over the world. The Scandinavians and the Dutch are crazy for this salty liquorice called salmiak; for some of them, if it’s not salty it’s just not liquorice. I felt a little bit awkward that I didn’t have any, so I took the challenge and looked for the saltiest candy ever and eventually found this Icelandic triple salted liquorice.
Now when my customers say, “Give me the saltiest one”, I ask them if they’re sure. They say: “I am used to it, I am Dutch”, and then they go, “Ah this is too much!” and pull all these faces. I source it more for entertainment than to make much money. It’s fun.
What else do you have?
The pure liquorice comes in two forms: root and powder, which is essentially ground up root. I also always have something fun on the stall, like cherry and chilli candies. Some are very addictive—my new chocolate liquorice is very popular. I’m very picky. I avoid big companies because they try to make everything cheap and it’s often very average quality. For me, though, the best is pure 100 per cent liquorice; I never get tired of it.
What can you do with liquorice powder?
You can mix it into coffees, chocolate drinks, or even with beer too—Guinness is conditioned with liquorice. You can just sprinkle it on top of things like game meat. It is quite strong though, so you have to be careful not to use too much. Once I did a venison fillet wrapped in bacon with a liquorice powder and I just ruined the entire plate. Luckily it was only for me, so no one could complain! I like to experiment.
What would you say to someone who has never cooked with liquorice before?
I have been a chef for roughly seven years altogether and as an Italian, we have the philosophy that if you are a chef, you have to educate people. I sound a little bit bossy sometimes but trust me, if you want to eat something nice you sometimes have to rely on what the chef says. I like to talk to my customers a lot about recipes, even more than talking about the liquorice itself, because that’s my way of both educating them and making them appreciate something a little bit rare.