Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Black Licorice: One Traveler's Quest for Sweets

Photographs by Nicole Holt

When it comes to licorice lovers, there are decidedly two camps. There are those that love the nostalgic flavor of the black variety, and there are those that love the sweeter flavor of the red
variety. I am decidedly in the camp of black licorice lovers.

It's not that I have anything against red licorice, but, most of the time, I prefer the soothing anise flavor of black licorice.

I didn't always favor black licorice, but I wasn't really exposed to it until about 10 years ago. In general, black licorice isn't widely consumed in the United States, so the samples that I had early on were often stale due to the fact that they did not sell quickly.

While I slowly went about my path of black licorice exploration, there was a huge variety of which I was simply ignorant. International travel eventually broadened my licorice horizons.

The black licorice produced overseas can contain more variety than a slight sweetness and a mild anise flavor. That licorice could be more savory than sweet was a revelation to me.

My introduction to savory licorice came in the form of a salted licorice fish called Salt Sild. A coworker brought some back with him from a trip to Finland. I examined one of the small black fish; it was caked in fine white salt which were caked in salt.. It tasted impossibly salty and was not at all like candy with which I was familiar. Beyond the salt, a strong aftertaste remained. The flavor was not entirely unlike molasses but not quite the same. It was disgusting.

A few months later, I noticed an open package of Salt Sild on my coworker's desk and decided to try another. This time I wasn't disgusted by the flavor. This time I was prepared, and I was able to appreciate it for what it was. The complexity of the licorice struck me: a savory, salty and slightly sweet candy. It was amazing.

From that point on, I have kept an eye out for interesting black licorice on my travels. Scandinavia proved to be the epicenter of my licorice discoveries since many varieties of licorice are available there. These range is from sweet to quite salty. Some are hard, while others
are soft. Some leave a pleasantly bitter anise flavor behind when eaten, while others leave behind a mild honey flavor. Some licorice varieties even have a waxy feeling to them.

While salt is a common addition to licorice, menthol is also a favorite in Europe. Mentholated licorice can vary from pleasant, like a cough drop, to cough inducingly powerful.

While in Sweden, I found little boxes of Salta Katten, and I couldn't resist the little salted licorice cats. I brought the small yellow boxes home and forgot about them until my wife and I went to
the movies. I pulled out a box of the tiny black cats and popped a few into my mouth. Soon I realized that something wasn't quite right; my mouth was going slightly numb. There is something in Salta Katten that causes oral numbness.

The experience with the mouth numbing salted cats was slightly disturbing, but it was a nice reminder that there is such a great variety of licorice that I have yet to explore. It's just too bad that our options for finding licorice within the United States are limited...

I had thought that all hope for finding excellent licorice in the United States was lost when I visited Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, PA, earlier this year. In this market there is a shop called Chocolate By Mueller. While chocolate is their namesake, licorice is another one of their passions. They stock well over 30 types of fresh imported and domestic licorice, and the proprietors are very knowledgeable about all of them.

At Chocolate By Mueller, I purchased the freshest licorice wheels I have ever tasted. After speaking with the proprietor, I discovered that their location gains some of the credit for the freshness that they are able to provide. Reading Terminal Market attracts tourists from all over the world, including those parts of the world that love licorice. For those that have been denied access to decent licorice on their travels, the licorice selection at Chocolate By Mueller is like an oasis in the dessert.

My only problem is that I don't live in Philadelphia, but all is not lost because they ship. If you ever find yourself in Philadelphia near Reading Terminal Market, I highly recommend stopping by for some salted licorice. For those that don't find themselves near Philadelphia, you may find a variety of licorice brands at Whole Foods, Cost Plus World Market, candy shops and stores that import European goods.

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1 comment:

  1. Did you know that real licorice is made from licorice root, which has many medicinal qualities? You can find licorice from all over the world at