The popularity of licorice in Europe - Or, why I always stock up on it when I travel abroad

If I had to choose one European city to visit just to eat its local treats, it would have to be Amsterdam. Not for Dutch pancakes or even stroopwafel. No, it would be just for the licorice (or drop).

For me, even a Dutch supermarket is a gourmet delight. All I need to do is walk down the candy aisle and ogle at shelf after shelf of licorice candies. It’s a sight I rarely see in the U.S. – and it is incredible!

So, why is there so much licorice in Amsterdam? Most Americans will be surprised to learn that it’s to meet demand.

According to StuffDutchPeopleLike.com, Dutch people eat more licorice per capita than people in any other country across the globe. In fact, each person consumes more than four pounds of it per year.

But, licorice isn’t only popular in Holland. I also stocked up on the sweet treat when I visited Denmark, Italy and France. And, that’s thanks to some seafaring Dutch.

According to Chow Hound, modern licorice candy dates from 17th century Holland. At that time, Holland was one of the world’s most powerful countries, and its sailors spread the popular candy to other the European nations where they docked during their travels.

Throughout Northern Europe, the preferred version of the licorice candy is hard and even salty, which is not at all like the licorice jelly beans most Americans get – and choose not to eat – in their packs of jelly beans.

According to travel expert Rick Steves, black licorice is at its best in Europe. And, it’s used to flavor ice cream, chewing gum, liqueur – and more.

During a recent trip to Greece, I enjoyed sipping licorice-flavored ouzo before my meal and brought home a big bag of ouzo-flavored hard candies. And, I always select licorice (or rather réglisse) flavored glacé at Berthillon in Paris.

So, what exactly is licorice?

The licorice plant is a perennial herb native to southern Europe, Asia and the Mediterranean. The plant is prized for its roots, which contain glcyyrrhic acid, and has a medicinal, herbal flavor. The root is said to have been used to relieve sore throats and coughs in ancient Rome, Egypt and China.

To make licorice candy, the root extract is mixed with salt or a sweetener to “soften” its strong flavor.

Lately, I’ve become partial to the salty varieties – which very from lightly to heavily salted. I stocked up on a bunch of salty varieties like when we visited Amsterdam last summer. And, I happy selected a bag of Salzige Heringe at Chicago’s annual German holiday market, Christkindlmarket.

According to ChowHound, the English town of Pontefract is said to be the birthplace of the sweeter style of the licorice candy. As noted by the food website, in 1760, a pharmacist added sugar to a licorice root cough medicine easier for people to take. And, even today, sweetener has become a common addition in licorice-producing countries.

Interestingly, in the U.S., anise seed is often substituted for licorice. But, although anise seed has a similar flavor, it’s not actually related to the European plant with its prized roots – which flavors the popular candy.

And, that just applies to black licorice candy. Red licorice is not licorice at all – just an artificially flavored candy with the same shape as its often-braided cousin.

Where do you stand on licorice? Is it your candy of choice – or do you avoid it when possible?

In my family, my husband and older son always leave the licorice candies in Haribo variety packs like Color-Rado for me and my younger son – and we’re always happy they do!

While I’ve always grabbed for the black jelly beans when others have gone for the red ones, my taste for licorice has gotten more complex these days – and I always enjoy trying new varieties.

On a recent trip to New York City, I happily dragged my family into Myzel's in Midtown Manhattan. The store stocks more than 100 varieties of licorice – which you can sample before purchasing some of your own. Needless to say, I can’t wait to try more on my next trip to the Big Apple!

And, I was thrilled when my sister brought back a big bag of lakritz-flavored Ricola for us from Germany!

But, I know I’m not in the majority. When buying candy for others, I know not to gift them with black licorice. And, I know to make sure to not give my younger son the stronger licorice candy, opting for something a little sweeter – or even a bit salty – instead.

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Do you like licorice? Or, do you let other friends and family members eat it instead? What is your favorite licorice or other candy? Share your story in the comments below.

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