Sublime licorice, the ‘black gold’ of Rossano

MARIELLA RADAELLI

Even in the time of the ancient Greeks, Calabria’s s soil and climate had already proved ideal for growing long, thick and sweet licorice roots.

Skilled expertise and then an industry grew up around licorice in Rossano, a beautiful hill town that was one of the main centers of Byzantine civilization in Calabria, assuming importance when Reggio di Calabria fell to the Saracens in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries.
Licorice Museum Giorgio Amarelli
The Licorice Museum “Giorgio Amarelli” celebrates Calabrese liquorice’s rich heritage.

The ancient Greeks introduced the Rossanesi to this wonderful herb with its distinctive taste and a wide range of uses.

Today, Rossano is still home to the Italian licorice trade and even has a licorice museum that celebrates its most famous export. Licorice-loving tourists come just to savor the “black gold”.

La Amarelli Liquirizie is an iconic family-run company in Rossano that has turned the licorice root into pure, rich and pleasurable confectionery “since 1731 when the founder Paolo Fortunato Amarelli together with his son had the brilliant idea of extracting the juice from the root with a procedure similar to the current one”, explains Pina Amarelli, president of La Amarelli.

Paolo Fortunato Amarelli also discovered how to make treats from licorice-root extract. The licorice as we know it today was practically born as a result and now enjoyed worldwide.

The Licorice Museum “Giorgio Amarelli” celebrates Calabrese liquorice’s rich heritage. The museum established in 2001 is dedicated to more recent members of the family. In the same year, it was awarded the Guggenheim Culture and Business Prize.

According to the Italian Touring Club, the Amarelli Museum is the second-most popular industrial museum in the country following Ferrari’s museum in Maranello. It is the only one of its kind in Italy and “actually, in the world, because there is no other museum devoted exclusively to licorice”, says Pina Amarelli.

Calabria remains the largest producer of quality licorice root in the world. The licorice plants (Glycyrrhiza glabra) cultivated in Calabria are grown with passion and selected with care.

“The British Encyclopedia defines Calabrese licorice, with no doubt whatsoever, as ‘the best in the world’,” she says.

Licorice root has been used for millennia as a health tonic, blood purifier and for relief from sore throats. The Greeks were the first to recognize the plant’s benefits in treating coughs.

Roman soldiers reportedly used licorice root to quench their thirst, while kings and emperors including the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen enjoyed the root, which was found in his tomb. Julius Caesar and Napoleon were habitual consumers. Licorice also had an ancient reputation as an aphrodisiac as well.

Even the history of the Crusades intermingles with the Amarelli family genealogy and licorice.
Rossano, Italy
The 10th century church of San Marco in the historic center of Rossano is considered one of the greatest examples of Byzantine religious architecture in Calabria.

“Our ancestor Alessandro Amarelli participated in the First Crusade (1096-99) and died as a valiant hero,” Pina Amarelli says. “Our museum preserves a letter informing of his death. It was written by his cousin Ugo de 'Pagani. That important historical document was used by some scholars to prove the Italian origin of the Templars. I refer particularly to the book ‘L’Italiano che fondò i templari’ written by Mario Moiraghi,” she notes.

“Visitors see how the root, a humble product of the earth, becomes elegant licorice placed on the shelves of international luxury,” she says. “It is possible through the story of a family that has managed to turn it into the ‘black gold’ of Calabria.”

In the 1930s, US industry was importing some 35,000 tons of licorice root per year. Attempts to grow licorice domestically were unsuccessful, so most was imported from Calabria.

Mrs. Amarelli says that the company has continued to strengthen exports to America in recent years. “This is thanks to the successful Eataly operations in some US cities such as New York, Chicago and the newly opened sprawling, modern outpost in Century City, Los Angeles. In addition to all of this we have a well-established relationship with our historic customers,” she says.

Their best-selling products are mainly the Sassolini, followed by gummy licorice candies and a wide selection of pure and gluten-free licorice pieces at their finest without any sweeteners.

“One day songwriter Lucio Dalla called me from New York urging me to supply the famed foodie store Dean & DeLuca because Isabella Rossellini was without our licorice,” she recalls.

“Lucio added that Isabella wanted our red licorice tin that he always carried. He replied that he could not give her his Amarelli tin because he could not travel without being ‘amarellato’ (dependent on Amarelli licorice)”.

Besides the black gold of Calabria, the historic town in the Cosenza province is home to another treasure: the Codex Purpureus Rossanensis, a Greek uncial manuscript dating from the 5th or 6th century that contains the gospels of Matthew and Mark. The manuscript, 185 pages of red-dyed vellum, gleams with gold whorls and Byzantine interlace.

The Codex Purpureus belongs to the diocesan museum of sacred art of the Archdiocese Rossano-Cariati, where few days ago actor Giancarlo Giannini gave a presentation on a planned docufilm about the codex.

The Rossano cathedral is worth a visit. It contains the Madonna Acheropita fresco, a much venerated Byzantine relic of the 8th and 9th centuries. Lastly, don’t leave Rossano without seeing on a hilltop to the southeast the Oratory of Saint Mark, an outstanding five-domed Byzantine church from the 10th century. The origins of the iconographic scheme adopted in the Saint Mark are to be found in Cretan churches.