The roots of the Amarelli family run deep in this part of northern Calabria, on the shores of the Gulf of Taranto in the Ionian Sea. This is in the sun-drenched high arch of the Italian peninsula's boot and once was part of the Byzantine Empire.
But it is not only the roots of the Amarelli family that are firmly entrenched in the well-drained soil here. Those ancestral roots are also inextricably tied to another kind of root – that of the licorice plant. The metre-long tentacles of this legume, and the sweeter-than-sugar black sap it releases after being steamed, go into the making of the Amarellis' natural licorice products. Natural, or black, licorice is as different from commercial licorice as a microbrew is from root beer.
"It is the best licorice in the world because it grows in a specific area of Calabria where the earth and the sky do most of the work to create its unique taste," says Pia Amarelli, who runs the family firm that has been making licorice since 1731.
Known throughout the country as "the queen of licorice," she likes to point out the family motto, part of the coat of arms, is domatur armis, Latin for "conquered only by force of arms." It's this position of strength that keeps them in the high segment of a globalized market. The indomitable Amarelli was the driving force behind Museo della Liquirizia Giorgio Amarelli, an extraordinary museum within a lovely stone mansion owned by the family since the late 15th century.
The museum, in the heart of lower Rossano, offers a fascinating rainy-day diversion from the area's stunning beaches. It's free, and the grounds include a citrus garden and a small church. Inside, you'll find a treasure trove of well-preserved family documents, period dress, early farm machinery and a detailed display of the method of licorice production in an 18th-century shop. The narrative is abetted by centuries-old payment ledgers, correspondence and production logs, and in one corner, an old post office is replicated with wooden chests, stamps, invoices and an early telephone.
By far, it is the most delightful and well-presented private museum I've ever visited. It is so well regarded that the Italian government issued a stamp commemorating it.
Adjacent to the museum is – of course – a shop where visitors can buy all manner of licorice, from sticks to candies flavoured with anise or mint, from soft licorice infused with orange or violet, to delicately crafted confections. Some of these come in gorgeous little tins decorated with vibrant images.
Though steeped in tradition, Amarelli is also branching out to make licorice-based hair shampoo and licorice-tinged pasta or licorice-infused nougats, chocolate, cologne and liquor.
I like the tiny anise-flavoured black pieces made from pure licorice extract; the taste is both bitter and very intense. The flavour of licorice comes mainly from a sweet-tasting compound called anethole, an aromatic, unsaturated ether compound also found in anise, fennel and several other herbs. Much of the sweetness in licorice comes from glycyrrhizin, a compound dozens of times sweeter than sugar.
Behind it all is Amarelli's hope that her museum brings more tourists to Calabria, which tends to get the short end of the stick in Italy. "Few people know but, under the Bourbon [family dynasty] Calabria was a rich, industrialized area. Weapons, tar, licorice and silk were produced here."
Calabria doesn't produce weapons and tar any more, and the silk industry waned long ago. Amarelli's goal is to ensure licorice doesn't suffer the same fate.
IF YOU GO
Museo della Liquirizia is open every day from 9:30 to noon and from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Contrada Amarelli, 106-87067 Rossano, Italy, 39-0983-511219; museodellaliquirizia.it.