This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Licorice: A Dark and Salty Stranger, first released on March 10. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
AVERY: I think of black licorice that it’s gross and don’t put it on any of your candies.
MICHAEL LEE: I have some licorice gums in the cupboard now. I’ve always liked it. Ever since I first tasted a licorice allsort when I was 6.
AYLA: Black licorice is disgusting. Red licorice is good.
SPEAKER 1: I’m a fan in moderation.
SPEAKER 2: I had childhood trauma because my mom really liked licorice and I just couldn’t stand it. Then she gave me this salted one, which is the most horrible one ever. I think my views have changed now a bit.
SPEAKER 3: In Italy, it’s usually eaten in kind of gummy candies. So it’s kind of fun and pleasant taste. And your blood pressure gets high a bit. So that’s a fun feeling usually.
HEATHER COPLEY: And it is a Marmite product. You do love it or hate it. And I really like Marmite and really like licorice.
CYNTHIA GRABER: I’m on the love side—I was always that kid who was happy to take anyone’s discarded black jelly beans.
NICOLA TWILLEY: Weirdly, I actually don’t have strong feelings about licorice. It’s fine. It’s not my deathbed choice, but I’ll eat it.
GRABER: But this episode of Gastropod, we’re going to do more than just eat licorice—though we will also be eating some of the strangest, saltiest versions I’ve ever tried—
TWILLEY: Yes, this is Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and this episode, we will get to the bottom of the very important question: why is licorice so polarizing? Why do most people either love it or hate it?
TWILLEY: Not to mention an even more important question: what the heck is licorice? Does it grow on trees? Where does this curious black substance come from?
GRABER: And to get curiouser and curiouser, why does everyone in Nordic countries add salt to their licorice? What’s that all about?
TWILLEY: Finally, for those of you who do love licorice, is there such a thing as too much?
GRABER: In fact, the short answer is yes, because it turns out there is actually such a thing as licorice poisoning.
TWILLEY: Another way to die that I’d never even thought to worry about! But first, if you’re listening to this episode hot off the presses, it’s your last chance to apply for our summer fellowship. The deadline is March 17, it’s a paid part time opportunity, working remotely. All the details and how to apply are at gastropod.com/fellow.
COPLEY: We grow asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries, pumpkins, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries—grass for the lambs and sheep that we farm, pigs.
GRABER: Heather Copley is the managing director of Farmer Copleys in Yorkshire in the north of England. The farm spreads out over about 110 acres, it used to be a dairy farm but the cows were sold off and then Heather and her husband Robert took over their family farm. And a few years ago, Heather decided she wanted to add some licorice to the mix.
TWILLEY: Yep, turns out there is such a thing as a licorice plant.
COPLEY: Somebody just came across and said I’ve got some licorice plants, a local person. And they were left from an original licorice garth, which is what you call a planting of licorice. It’s called a garth. They had some left, probably about 80 plants or so, in their back garden. And they were wanting to develop their back garden. So basically we picked them up at the end of the year, just like the roots. They just look like dried up roots. And brought them back and planted them here. In what was really quite close to the car park at that stage. Then my brother-in-law managed to dig them up, when he was excavating the car park, somebody went too far.
TWILLEY: Fortunately, the licorice survived, no word on the brother-in-law. Heather moved it to a safer location. But the challenges were not over.
COPLEY: The only other mishap we had, which we didn’t have a clue about. It’s not documented anywhere. We’ve discovered ourselves that rabbits love licorice roots. So they would come in in the spring and they would keep digging up and chewing the bottom of the licorice root. So that’s a new one. So we do have to electric fence it to keep the rabbits out.
GRABER: Smart rabbits—the roots are what we particularly love, too. It usually takes about five years for those licorice roots to grow big enough for a first harvest. So after five years, Heather decided to check it out and see how their licorice was doing.
COPLEY: So we dug a little trench and found a licorice root, which was ever so exciting because I’d never actually seen a proper licorice root. And we were able to eat it literally from the field. And it was quite translucent in color at that stage. And when we actually ate it, it was almost like a very clear, honey-type sap that came out of it. And it was super, super sweet, but really strong, of the sort of—more of an anise seed flavor than you would have with the licorice allsort type sweets. And although it is sweet, it’s a different sweet—more like a honey sweet as opposed to a sugar sweet.
TWILLEY: This does not sound at all like the kind of licorice I’m used to—the squidgy, black stuff you buy in a pick ’n’ mix. But the other thing that’s sort of confusing is: what is licorice doing growing in Yorkshire? You can buy licorice in England, I know that from when I was a kid. But growing it there?
CAROL WILSON: It grows in hot countries. And at the present day, we get our licorice from Turkey, Iran, Iraq. It grows in Mediterranean countries. It grows in Italy, India, Syria, China, southern Europe.
GRABER: Carol Wilson is a food writer who has written a lot of books including one called Licorice: A Cookbook.
TWILLEY And Yorkshire is not a hot country. I went to university there, and I swear I didn’t take off my jumper for three years.
GRABER: You can keep your sweater on because we will be heading back to Yorkshire, but Carol says in the wild in hot countries, licorice is a shrub that grows like a weed.
WILSON: But today, when it’s cultivated, it’s cultivated mainly for its roots, although all the parts of the plant can actually be eaten. You can eat shoots. You can use the leaves to make a tea. But it’s the roots, which is the most important part.
TWILLEY: And those roots have been grown and harvested by humans going all the way back to ancient history. The earliest mention of licorice is on an Assyrian clay tablet from the 7th century BCE.
WILSON: Licorice has been in use for thousands of years, but its main use was as a medicine.
GRABER: Carol says it was thought to strengthen the immune system, and it was used as a remedy for coughs and colds.
TWILLEY: Licorice is also mentioned in the oldest Chinese book of spices, as one of 120 first-class remedies, with divine powers of healing.
GRABER: A species of licorice is native to North America, too, and indigenous groups here drank it for problems with childbirth and for upset stomachs.
LEE: It was good for everything—asthma, scabies, gout, and wound-healing, when mixed with honey.
GRABER: Michael Lee is a former doctor and professor of clinical pharmacology at Edinburgh University.
TWILLEY: Carol and Michael say that licorice shows up all over in the ancient world, once you start looking for it.
WILSON: A large quantity of licorice was actually found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, who ruled Egypt, about 1350 BCE. In fact, Alexander the Great instructed his troops to take some licorice root with them, to chew, to reduce their thirst when water was scarce and to give them strength during their long marches.
GRABER: And Alexander the Great wasn’t the first to try out that thirst-reducing trick.
LEE: One of the earliest references is by a Greek historian called Herodotus and he went to live with the Scythians. And when he lived with the Scythians, he discovered they were using licorice to suppress thirst, and they used to mix it with mare’s milk in order to provide food on their long journeys on horseback.
GRABER: Michael says licorice would have had a practical benefit in this case—and in other medical situations, too.
LEE: Well, it has a number of properties. It’s anti-inflammatory, tends to damp down inflammation. but more particularly, it can affect sodium and water metabolism in the body.
TWILLEY: In fact, licorice specifically triggers water retention. Which can be dangerous, but could be handy on a long thirsty march.
GRABER: Another reason licorice might have helped when marauding armies were feeling a little thirsty is that it has a lovely throat-soothing property.
LEE: It’s a nice emulsant, what we call it, the emulsant, and it coats the pharynx and larynx and suppresses cough, and it is still used in cough mixtures bought over the counter.
TWILLEY: Julius Caesar was another licorice devotee who made sure the Roman legion always had licorice in their rations. And Carol says it’s still being used this way today, at least by camels.
WILSON: Arabs on the camel trains across the desert will give their camels licorice to stop them from becoming thirsty.
GRABER: All that licorice being carried on all those long journeys—luckily, it also tasted good, too.
LEE: Oh, yes, it was recognized as being a sweet root.
TWILLEY: That’s where the name licorice comes from. Glyco rhiza means sweet root in Ancient Greek—if you say it fast enough, enough times, glyco rhiza becomes lica rish, the sweet root.
LEE: And before the days of the sugar cane, it was widely used as a sweetener in confectionary drinks and so on.
TWILLEY: As Heather noticed when she tasted the licorice root fresh out of the ground on her farm, licorice is much sweeter than sugar—some say 50 times sweeter, some say 150 times.
GRABER: And licorice is in fact the very oldest branded candy in England—and it was invented in the town right next to Heather’s farm. But as we said, licorice plants aren’t native to England, so how did licorice end up there?
LEE: The classical story is that of the Crusades. The crusaders, as you know, for two or three hundred years, went to the Holy Land. And while they were there, they discovered that the Muslims were using licorice as a sweet condiment. And also for certain disorders like asthma.
TWILLEY: Some of these crusaders were monks, and they brought this licorice plant back with them to grow in their monastery herb gardens.
LEE: And then they had monasteries all over Europe. And one of them was in Pontefract in West Yorkshire, England.
GRABER: The monks actually grew licorice in a few different places in England, but it turned out that their Pontefract monastery was the very best for the plant.
COPLEY: It’s all about soil type. If you haven’t got the right soil type, it won’t grow. It needs really free draining sandy soil, which is what we have on the farm. Because the roots will go down about 4 feet and about 20—they’ll spread about 25 feet across, once they’re properly established.
TWILLEY: The plant grows a little more slowly in England than in the Mediterranean. There’s not actually a ton of sunshine in Yorkshire. But the cloudy, cold weather also ends up having a silver lining, because the licorice plants don’t flower, and so they put all their energy into growing their roots instead.
GRABER: But in any case, licorice plants did grow really well for the monks—so well that they kept the knowledge of how to grow their new cash crop a secret from the local community.
TWILLEY: Then, Henry VIII’s first wife couldn’t produce an heir, and he fancied divorcing her and marrying Anne Boleyn instead, and to do that, he had to break with Catholicism and close all the Catholic monasteries.
LEE: When Henry the Eighth dissolved the monasteries, all the secrets and the lands of the monasteries were overtaken, and the fields growing licorice fell into the hands of local farmers.
GRABER: And after the farmers enthusiastically took over all those licorice fields, they still kept some secrets. The borough of Pontefract made it illegal for anyone to sell a licorice plant outside town.
TWILLEY: The punishment was a fine of 2 shillings and sixpence and a lifetime ban on growing licorice. Pontefract was serious about its licorice.
WILSON: Pontefract became the center of the licorice industry. And by 1750, there were 47 licorice farmers in Pontefract.
COPLEY: People talk about every field, you know, just being full of these licorice garths. And when I say garth, it’s a bit like if you imagine a vineyard, you know, where you’ve got like the rows, going down. That’s how a licorice garth would grow together. So the bushes would all come up, and they’d be in these lovely rows all through Pontefract area.
GRABER: When it came time to harvest time, the whole town pitched in. Entire families would go out together.
COPLEY: To harvest it, you would dig a trench one side one year and cut the roots, and then you backfill that in. And then the following year, you dig a trench on the opposite side. And you can just keep going. As far as I’m aware. I don’t think it’s a crop that would ever stop producing. Because it is quite a strange crop. I was an agronomist for donkey’s years, growing plants and advising farmers all over south of England. And I’ve never seen anything grow like or be harvested in the way that licorice is, with digging a trench one side and then the next year digging it the other side and literally pruning it by hand.
GRABER: The village families would dig up the roots and dry them, then they’d soak those dried roots in hot water, wring them out in the same type of contraption they used to wring out clothes, and then they’d boil the syrup.
TWILLEY: Along the way, the licorice turned dark brown or black.
GRABER: So that licorice syrup was basically the same color we’re used to today. But the syrup was largely destined for one of dozens of medical uses. When did licorice become a candy?
WILSON: The person we have to thank for that was a chemist from Pontefract called George Dunhill.
TWILLEY: A chemist, in British English, is actually, a pharmacist. Confusingly, a chemist is also a scientist who studies chemistry. But George Dunhill was definitely a pharmacist.
WILSON: All the chemists, the pharmacy—they all sold licorice. Because the weather was very wet and foggy and damp in winter and a lot of people developed coughs and chest problems. And of course, Yorkshire was a center for coal mining. So a lot of the miners, when they worked down the dusty mines, would take the licorice tablets to ease their chests and their coughs and to help their breathing. But George Dunhill in 1760 decided to add sugar, molasses and flour to the mixture. And he rolled the thick mixture into rounds. And sold it in his chemist shop, this was in 1760, as medicinal pastels for coughs and colds. But these sweet Pontefract cakes were so popular that people bought them just to eat for pleasure rather than as a medicine.
GRABER: And thus the very first British commercial candy was born—the Pontefract Cake—and the town was turned into an entire Pontefract Cake town!
LEE: Well, it was so important that 60 percent of the women and 30 percent of the men were working in Pontefract factories.
WILSON: And by about 1840, cultivation had soared, with hundreds of tons being produced in Pontefract every week. Because the British do have a very sweet tooth. And I was actually born, born in Yorkshire, and we love our licorice in Yorkshire.
TWILLEY: And so things continued on their merry way until World War II, when lots of the licorice factories were requisitioned to make more important things, like parachutes. And then, of course, sweets were rationed, and Pontefract was heavily bombed, and everything changed.
GRABER: The industry never really came back. Farmers gave up farming licorice, and the root now has to be imported. Nearly all the factories closed. There are just a couple Pontefract Cake factories left.
TWILLEY: Even though Heather has restarted the tradition of growing licorice in Pontefract again, she doesn’t grow nearly enough to supply the local factories.
COPLEY: So many people want to buy it off of us, but we just don’t have those volumes. So we will just be doing it as an experience and an educational tool to teach people about where licorice is from, from a historic viewpoint.
GRABER: And her customers can’t wait—there are still people around who remember when it was growing in town. It wasn’t THAT long ago.
TWILLEY: Because it’s so much a part of the town’s heritage, Heather buys in dried licorice root from overseas, to sell in her farm shop.
COPLEY: And you see these older customers coming in with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, buying them these little sticks of dried up roots. Telling the children to chew on this. This is what they had when they were children as sweets. You could imagine the look on most the children’s faces—they were less than impressed.
GRABER: To be honest, when Heather tried it, she also wasn’t a huge fan.
COPLEY: OK, so a dried licorice root really isn’t that exciting. Very woody. Very chewy. And it’s—you have to really, really chew it for an awfully long time to actually get the sap, if you imagine if it’s dried up, to get the sap to come out.
TWILLEY: Heather says the fresh root is altogether a different experience. And she’s shared some of her limited supply of fresh or wet licorice, as it’s called, with her older customers.
COPLEY: Yeah, we have done to some certain customers. You know, like ones that really go on about it. But this year, this September, we’re hoping to do a proper sort of licorice experience and let people come over. We’ll dig the trench. They can help harvest some of the roots, and they’ll be able to have it in the field.
GRABER: Even when her harvest is ready for customers, the haul will still be quite small. Heather’s hoping to enlist other local farmers in bringing licorice back to Pontefract.
COPLEY: Most of them think we’re absolutely bonkers and there’s a reason that it doesn’t grow in this area anymore commercially. But once we start to get hopefully a bigger demand, we might be able to get some local people involved in growing some for us. You wouldn’t need masses, but it’s that establishment phase. You know, you’ve got seven years of no return on investment, really. So. So that’s the difficult element to it.
TWILLEY: Leaving aside the question of growing licorice in England, the Pontefract cake itself is a relatively rare phenomenon these days. Even though I grew up in England and I used to save up my pocket money for licorice allsorts and licorice pipes, I’d never tried a Pontefract cake. I’d never even seen one. And they’re quite hard to track down—none of the shops or supermarkets I went to in London had them. Fortunately, my mum found a packet in the local Waitrose in the town where I grew up. There’s there’s not a lot of strong licorice flavor there. ‘.
GRABER: I was literally about to say that I get much more of the like treacle molasses. And just like a hint of licorice. Not much anise flavor.
TWILLEY: There’s more in the aftertaste now. Now I’ve swallowed it. It’s a little bit licorice-y.
GRABER: But not really—kind of surprisingly. I mean, it’s delicious.
TWILLEY: Yeah, I like it. It’s like dark caramelized molasses chew. A strangely addictive dark caramelized molasses chew. I ended up snarfing the packet.
GRABER: Pontefract cakes are great, but they really don’t taste like American licorice does—there isn’t all that much of an anise flavor. Why are they so different from what I think of as licorice?
TWILLEY: To answer that question, we called Beth Kimmerle. She works as a consultant to lots of candy companies, and she’s written a book called Candy: The Sweet History.
GRABER: We asked Beth to describe the flavors she picks up on in pure licorice.
BETH KIMMERLE: You’re first going to get sweet. And people like to say the sweet is, almost comes at the same time as a really earthy taste. Some people describe it as sort of barky, earthy.
GRABER: And that’s what the Pontefract cakes taste like. They’re kind of earthy and sweet.
TWILLEY: That’s not really the same flavor notes that you get in American candies like Good & Plenty or the black jelly beans. And the reason for that is that Good & Plenty and black jelly beans are also flavored with anise, which to me is a really different and distinctive flavor. I can’t describe it other than saying American licorice tastes like anise. And licorice allsorts and Pontefract cakes don’t.
GRABER: Licorice roots do have a compound that’s also present in anise seed and in fennel, things that taste stereotypically anise-y, but it’s not the main flavor note in dried and boiled licorice root.
KIMMERLE: They’re close cousins. Which is why you see anise oftentimes in licorice, just sort of I want to say, you know, it functions two-fold—I think it kind of mellows out some of that earthiness.
GRABER: And it seems like it adds back some of the anise notes that Heather noticed in the raw licorice root—the ones that probably get lost when the molasses notes get so strong when the extract of the roots is boiled. And for whatever reason, here in America, a lot of anise is added.
TWILLEY: So if you think you don’t like licorice, it might be that you don’t like the anise flavor in American licorice, and you should try a Pontefract cake.
GRABER: I decided to try this out on my eight-year-old niece Ayla, who said she hated black licorice—you heard her at the beginning of the show.
AYLA: Are you gonna eat this stuff?
GRABER: Yeah, I think it’s delicious.
AYLA: OK, let me try a bite.
GRABER: OK. Take a little bite.
AYLA: Hey, it’s actually kinda good. Tastes like prunes. As long as you don’t eat too much of it at a time, it kinda tastes good.
TWILLEY: Why thank you Ayla. Britain’s oldest sweet salutes you.
GRABER: Ayla also said that she loves red licorice, and she’s not alone in that. A lot of licorice haters will make an exception for the red variety.
TWILLEY: So what’s that? Is red licorice the same as black licorice but the color just makes it seem tastier?
WILSON: No, it’s not the same, I’m afraid. It doesn’t actually contain any licorice.
GRABER: So if it’s not licorice, why do we call it red licorice?
KIMMERLE: I think one of the things about licorice, early on, is they realized, OK, so black licorice is polarizing. How can we get more people to eat licorice? Oh, that’s it. You know, we offer a cherry version or a strawberry version or whatever that red is flavored. I think it’s some sort of like mixed, indistinguishable fruit flavor. And so I think that was that was their effort. Right. To appeal to a wider audience. And so it stuck. Right. So in the U.S., it’s still called licorice. Is it right or is it wrong? I think it’s kind of wrong, but it also just kind of is.
TWILLEY: But even within the ranks of red licorice lovers, there are strong feelings about the right and wrong kind of red licorice.
KIMMERLE: You know, there’s a huge fight between Twizzlers and Red Vines. It’s like an East versus West Coast thing. I think, like if you had a throwdown about one thing, like that would be juicy material.
TWILLEY: Here’s my view on this juicy smackdown: Neither Red Vines nor Twizzlers are good.
GRABER: They taste like wax.
TWILLEY: Don’t email us about this, we’re right.
GRABER: But even though I loved licorice as a kid, black licorice, the stuff that actually had taste, I was in the minority. There are just fewer of us here in the U.S.
KIMMERLE: One of the things that’s pretty clear is that our European friends, just they celebrate licorice in a different way. And they’re really, you know what, they’re very serious about it.
TWILLEY: One of the reasons for that is because European licorice confections, like Pontefract cakes—they date back to a time when sugar was still pretty rare and expensive. And so there wasn’t a lot of competition in the confectionary market.
KIMMERLE: And for us, we kind of came to it a little bit later, and it was already sort of a novelty and flavored differently.
GRABER: The Europeans who showed up in America did bring their licorice with them. Experts think the very first branded candy in America was Good & Plenty, which is licorice. But that was in the late 1800s, and we already had access to a lot of sugar, and so quite quickly, licorice was just one of the many candy flavors available.
TWILLEY: But also, Beth told us that glycorisin, the compound that makes licorice licorice, has a really long-lasting and intense flavor note.
KIMMERLE: Which is why they’re perfect as breath mints and people use the medicinally is because they really mask a lot of other flavors. And that’s because the intensity, these really strong flavors last a long time. And I think that’s actually one of the reasons that makes it really polarizing, because particularly here in the United States, we’re trained to like these things that are, you know, dare I say hand-to-mouth eating, right. You can just go in one after another. And I think with licorice, you really have to sort of pace yourself and take your time with them because of those intense flavors.
TWILLEY: There were just a lot of other more approachable, easier to love ways to consume sugar competing for the American mouthshare, and anyway, licorice wasn’t really being cultivated the same way in America—and the end result is that licorice has never really been super popular in this country.
GRABER: But Beth says those types of intense and complex flavors are increasingly popular in the U.S., and licorice seems to be doing pretty well now.
KIMMERLE: And I think I think bold flavors overall, like the American palate, no matter what food you’re in, whether that’s coffee or chocolate or savory or sweet. I think these bolder flavors are really appealing to folks. So I think this trend, it has done well for licorice. And I think I think it’s on an uptick as a result of that.
GRABER: But kind of surprisingly, there is such a thing as eating too much licorice.
LEE: If you’ve got hypertension, heart failure, you should avoid licorice like the plague.
TWILLEY: Remember, licorice used to be a medicine. And Michael Lee, who is a former doctor and professor of pharmacology, says licorice does have real physiological effects—effects on your body that go well beyond tasting nice.
LEE: That’s where it not only suppresses thirst, but it conserves sodium in the kidney, and that has its dangers. Licorice used in excess gives rise to hypertension. Usually those people I’ve seen poisoned with licorice are eating three or four packs of Bassetts Liquorice Allsorts or Pontefract cakes every day.
GRABER: Wait, he said poisoned? People have been poisoned by eating licorice?
LEE: I had two cases in two weeks when I was a physician at the Royal Infirmary here. And these two patients were admitted with paralysis of all four limbs and hypertension. And I immediately said, have you been eating a lot of licorice? And one lady was consuming four packs of licorice allsorts per day. When we stopped licorice, the whole thing went away.
TWILLEY: I’m trying not to laugh, because obviously this is serious, but also! Licorice poisoning?
LEE: Well, we wondered how the patient got it down. She had a pack at breakfast, two packs at lunchtime and one pack in the evening. For some four or five years.
TWILLEY: I mean, that is a lot. But to a licorice fan, like Michael, it’s not impossible to imagine.
LEE: Once you’ve eaten two Pontefract cakes, you can think you will eat 10. Be guarded, be guarded.
GRABER: For those of you like me who love licorice and had a momentary panic, don’t worry. Licorice poisoning is not a common event.
LEE: In my whole medical career, I’ve seen about 10 cases in 30 to 40 years. I myself eat licorice allsorts, but I enjoy them thoroughly, although I don’t eat too much.
TWILLEY: But Michael does draw the line at some kinds of licorice. Licorice allsorts and Pontefract cakes are one thing. Salty licorice, that’s something else altogether.
LEE: Oh, yes, well, that’s even worse because combining salt with a salt retainer, up goes your blood pressure faster. So the Scandinavians should ban salty licorice.
GRABER: We spoke to a Scandanavian who can tell you that you can basically take his salty licorice over his very dead body.
JUKKA ANNALA: I’m Jukka Annala. I’m from Helsinki, Finland. And I’m the chairman of the Finnish Salty Liquorice Association.
TWILLEY: Salty licorice is a very strange thing, to be honest. And one of the ways it’s weird is that the salty part is not normal table salt, sodium chloride. It’s ammonium chloride.
ANNALA: And ammonium chloride is a specific salt. And it gives that particular saltiness, the aroma to salmiakki candies.
GRABER: The word salmiakki—which is how Finns say salty licorice–it actually comes from that salt, from ammonium chloride. Sal ammoniac is what it was called in the past, sal-miakki. And ammonium chloride is a little more bitter and acidic than regular table salt.
TWILLEY: But so why in the world did anyone think to combine ammonium chloride with licorice in the first place?
ANNALA: Ammonium chloride is traditionally used in medicine. It’s used as an expectorant in cough medicine.
GRABER: Since both licorice and ammonium chloride were both being sold at the pharmacists to combat coughs, someone thought to combine them. And then somehow people liked that taste.
TWILLEY: And the same way that George Dunhill turned his medicinal licorice pastilles into England’s first branded sweet, someone in Finland had the bright idea to sell these salmiakki lozenges and syrups as confections, too.
GRABER: And today, salmiakki is basically the Finnish national candy.
TWILLEY: We asked Jukka why exactly he thinks salmiakki is so delicious.
ANNALA: I should say it’s a sinful combination of salt and sweet, which makes it so exciting. I eat it regularly, I think nearly daily.
GRABER: Finns who move abroad can’t survive without it. It’s the one item nearly all Finns ask family members and friends to bring along when they visit.
TWILLEY: Smart Finns even make sure to bring salmiakki with them when they travel. When Jukka had to go to Russia for a month, he sacrificed spare socks and underpants to make sure he had enough salty licorice.
ANNALA: My friend who was with me at the time, he said afterwards, that’s—your luggage was nearly just salmiakki and nothing much else.
GRABER: Back in Finland, there’s a tradition of taking hard salmiakki candies and using them to infuse vodka. But then in the ’90s, a company had the brilliant idea to create their own official salmiakki flavored vodka.
ANNALA: And it became so popular in Finland that it was banned.
TWILLEY: There was a concern that young people, especially, would consume too much of this salmiakki vodka and would get alcohol poisoning. And so the minister in charge of alcohol decided to halt its sale. And all the bottles of salty licorice vodka were impounded in a big warehouse in Helsinki.
ANNALA: And the state-owned alcohol company did not know what to do with this large amount of alcohol bottles of salmiakki vodka.
GRABER: First they thought, hey, let’s just ship all that vodka over to places where Finns go on holiday, like Spain. But then, government officials quickly realized, that’s not going to work. The Finns would just buy up all the salmiakki vodka in Spain and bring it home with them.
TWILLEY: Then they were just going to pour it out, but the authorities worried that adding that much salmiakki to the Helsinki sewer system might be problematic. Meanwhile the vodka was just sitting there in this warehouse.
GRABER: And then eventually there was a new election in Finland. And the new minister noted that the bottles were still drinkable—so, they just quietly restocked the shelves of the national liquor stores with salmiakki vodka.
TWILLEY: And Finns began drinking salmiakki vodka again. There hasn’t been a rash of teenage alcohol poisoning cases, to Jukka’s knowledge.
GRABER: But speaking of poisoning, we asked Jukka about Michael’s concern, that salt plus licorice is kind of a nightmare for your heart.
ANNALA: Salty licorice candies are not recommended to people who suffer from high blood pressure. So if you’re among this risk group, you should avoid salmiakki, that’s for sure. But on the other hand, if you have no such health issues, you should enjoy a lot.
GRABER: We’ve been focusing on Finland, but as we mentioned, this is a Nordic obsession in general—well, Nordic countries plus one extra. It’s popular in Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Norway—and the Netherlands.
TWILLEY: Jukka did admit that for those of us not native to the six salmiakki countries, salty licorice can be a bit of an acquired taste. In fact, Finns like to feed it to visitors as a test of their mettle.
ANNALA: And they have well, if not in fact thrown up, but they have nearly vomited because of the ungood combination—the way they react to it.
GRABER: That’s a pretty intense reaction—what do they say about it?
ANNALA: They describe it’s like it’s not eatable. It tastes like the juice in the socks or something as colorful because. I can understand if you had never, ever tasted that particular candy. It can be frightening.
TWILLEY: Well I for one am not going to let a harmless piece of confectionary intimidate me.
GRABER: Fortunately, two very lovely listeners in Finland offered to send us each a care package of different types of salmiakki. And Jukka had some tasting advice for us.
ANNALA: Well, you should have an open mind, an open schedule, a glass of water, and that’s it.
GRABER: Why an open schedule?
ANNALA: If you fall in love with salmiakki, then you should have time to enjoy it.
TWILLEY: Finally, we found an opening in our schedules.
GRABER: We each got our packages in the mail, and so we called Helsinki.
SARAH WADE: Hi this is Sarah Wade, I’m in Helsinki, Finland.
AARON WADE: This is Aaron Wade, and I am also in Helsinki, Finland, in the bedroom.
TWILLEY: First, some baseline context. Sarah and Aaron are American, and they’ve lived in Finland for about a year and a half now.
GRABER: Aaron grew up liking licorice—his parents grew anise in their yard, and he enjoyed that flavor. But Sarah was not a childhood fan of black licorice.
TWILLEY: So, how do they feel about salmiakki? Love at first bite?
SARAH: Salmiakki is um, I wouldn’t say I love it. I like it in the forms where it’s mixed with other things. Like, I love it in ice cream, and I like it in vodka. I’m not the person who goes out of my way to have salmiakki.
TWILLEY: And Aaron, you used to be a licorice fan. Has this rekindled your feelings?
AARON: No, it hasn’t. So the saltiness, to me, it’s too weird.
GRABER: Aaron and Sarah have each been subjected to the Finn’s attempts to get them to puke when they eat salmiakki, but they’re past that. They can handle it now.
TWILLEY: Now they just like Finns themselves in that they enjoy giving salmiakki to other more unsuspecting foreigners. Like us.
GRABER: Well so talk us through what you’ve got and why, what you sent us. I’m gonna open this up and spread it out on the couch here next to me.
TWILLEY: Sarah had picked out some classic salmiakki for us. We had the traditional Apotheek salmiakki powder, which people serve on ice cream. We had three different varieties of Sisu salmiakki pastilles—smoky, spicy, and salty. We had chocolate-coated licorice, and a salmiakki bar, and this other brand called Turkish Pepper, which Sarah says a lot of people use to make homemade salmiakki vodka.
GRABER: Which Sarah encouraged us to do after we got off the phone.
TWILLEY: It was 10 a.m. in L.A., so that had to wait. But where to start with our very first experience of salmiakki?
SARAH: I don’t know. I don’t know what I want to taste, well I was gonna have you taste the vodka first, but we should probably start with the Turkish pepper. I have to chop everything, because I am pregnant and I am not allowed to have that much.
GRABER: Oh, that’s right. You have to be careful.
SARAH: I do. So the limits are extremely unclear. But they compare it to drinking alcohol. They’re like, you know, where you can have a glass of wine. You just can’t binge and you can’t do it regularly. So I can’t binge on salmiakki.
TWILLEY: Boo hoo.
GRABER: I have to say first taste, this is totally delicious.
TWILLEY: Cynthia, you went in! I haven’t had mine yet. I was waiting.
GRABER: Oh, I didn’t know that. We were just opening! Open yours!
TWILLEY: Oh my god. Jesus Cynthia. Okay. All right. I’m having mine now.
AARON: Pretty not bad. It tastes like kind of like salty Good & Plenties.
GRABER: Mhm! These Turkish Pepper salmiakki—first, we do have to say they weren’t particularly spicy, despite their name and despite the flames on the package. But in terms of candy, they were like a hard sucking candy with a liquid center. Which we were warned was slightly more intense.
TWILLEY: I’m gonna bite and see what happens.
GRABER: Me too. Okay. Oh, yeah. Wow, that’s saltier.
TWILLEY: It’s saltier, but I kind of like it.
GRABER: Oh, I totally like it.
TWILLEY: I love salt, though, so you know, I’m a good target audience.
SARAH: You got your salt, you got your sweet, you got your full day, right?
TWILLEY: After the full-on salt rush of that liquid center, I was ready for something a little more familiar—and a little more sweet. Chocolate. Admittedly, wrapped around licorice, but still chocolate. Let’s do it.
GRABER: Okay, I’m ready. One, two, three. Mmm, yum.
TWILLEY: Oh, that’s amazing.
GRABER: That’s delicious.
TWILLEY: That’s like a no questions, I want another right now.
GRABER: It also doesn’t have a really strong salmiakki taste, though.
SARAH: No, it’s not very salty. This variation is very mild. I think.
GRABER: Yeah, no. We looked and this one had zero ammonium chloride. It was chocolate-coated licorice, not chocolate-coated salty licorice. Not actually salmiakki.
TWILLEY: Which is probably why we all really loved this one!
GRABER: Next we tried this tiny slightly chewy but kind of hard candy—
TWILLEY: We would call it a pastille in England.
GRABER: And we had three different flavors. We decided to start with the salty version.
GRABER: Wow. Sorry, Nicky. I just put it right in my mouth. I didn’t wait. Wow.
TWILLEY: You guys are really making me want to try this. I have to say.
SARAH: It’s just a bit of a shock to the senses.
TWILLEY: Oof. Oof.
GRABER: My mouth is watering so intensely.
TWILLEY: That’s full on.
GRABER: We’re going to spare you our reactions to the smoky and spicy ones, those were pretty gross. The smoky one tasted like menthol, like toothpaste.
TWILLEY: For reasons that are unclear. And the spicy one was not spicy. It wasn’t even salty. Or licorice-y. It was nothing.
GRABER: Next we had a bar of chewy salmiakki that was kind of like a Panda bar, if you’ve ever had one of those. It was salty, and I thought it was delicious.
SARAH: I feel like the salt finishes like the palate cleanser that makes you want to eat more.
SARAH: Like you have to go back to the sweet. So you have to eat it again.
TWILLEY: I am, I mean I am having another bite. So there is possibly some truth to this theory.
AARON: So Sarah, I’m definitely on the same page. I hate this but then I’m like pounding it, and I’m gonna finish the bar.
TWILLEY: But we saved the best for last. The salmiakki powder.
GRABER: Well, I’m going to open it and just dip my finger in it and taste it.
AARON: Yeah I would recommend just pouring the whole thing right in your mouth.
TWILLEY: Aaron, Aaron, really?
GRABER: Now you’re being cruel. We weren’t born yesterday. We knew to just take the tiniest taste. Wow. Wow, that’s bitter.
TWILLEY: If you could see my face right now. It is, ahh.
GRABER: Ooh, that’s intense. I think that definitely needs some ice cream or something to mellow it. My eyes are, like, wide open.
SARAH: Even on ice cream. It’s like a bit of a punch if you don’t mix it in.
TWILLEY: Sarah was upset we weren’t getting the full salmiakki ice cream experience. But the experience we were getting was quite something. We can source ice cream. I just don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to try that again.
GRABER: I just stuck my finger in there and licked it and oh my lord. Oh my lord.
TWILLEY: It’s, I’ve, like my face just went into spasm.
GRABER: Yeah, totally.
TWILLEY: Oh my god.
GRABER: So I thought I’d never go back to that powder, but I did try it on ice cream and mixed into plain yogurt, and it was surprisingly good. Still kind of weird, but good. And I have a hard time cutting myself off from those Turkish Pepper salmiakki hard candies. So clearly, this salky licorice thing has won me over.
TWILLEY: I am going to try the powder over ice cream, mainly because we promised Sarah. But my first priority was to finish the chocolate covered licorice before Geoff discovered how good it tasted.
GRABER: Thanks so much this episode to Heather Copley of Farmer Copleys, Carol Wilson, author of Liquorice: A Cookbook, Michael Lee, Beth Kimmerle, author Candy: The Sweet History, and Jukka Annala. As usual, we have links to their books, articles, and organizations on our website, gastropod.com.
TWILLEY: Thanks also and in particular to our wonderful listeners, Sarah and Aaron Wade. Sarah actually wrote us an email more than a year ago, not long after they moved to Finland, suggesting we do an episode on licorice and offering to send us a box. Thank you so much, Sarah and Aaron, we cannot think of better people to try our first salmiakki with!
GRABER: And we’ll be back in two weeks with a debate that has been raging literally for centuries: white or whole wheat?