All That Power
There’s a commercial going around the streaming services right now for a major cranberry juice company that leans into people’s love-hate relationship with the cranberry’s mouth-puckering flavor. After reassuring their audience that it’s ok to be wary of cranberry’s bite, they show their lineup of cranberry punches softened with grape or tropical fruits with the tagline, “What will you do with all that power?”
You could almost substitute black licorice for cranberry and reuse the commercial for the complex black candy–it’s taste is nothing if not powerful. At The Fika Table, our Nordic bakery in Texas, we embrace uncommon and polarizing flavors–we’re confident enough that we have something to suit every palate. But nothing we’ve experimented with is as polarizing as black licorice. Ask an American about licorice and you’ll probably get a wrinkled nose and a look of dread. For Northern Europeans, however, it’s a beloved treat–especially the salty kind. We bravely tried some ourselves recently, but first, a little background.
Cough Drops to Candy
Licorice, the gummy, pitch-black sweet, starts as a shrub with purple flowers that grows in Europe, South Asia, and the Middle East. Black licorice as food gets its peculiar earthy-sweet flavor from a compound in the licorice root called glycyrrhizin. This compound tastes medicinal, and does soothe the throat. It’s been used to treat coughs and quench thirst since ancient times in Greece, Rome, and Egypt (1) (be warned, overconsumption can be hazardous (2)). Salty licorice, made “salty” by adding ammonia chloride–a salt that can be manufactured or found around coal dumps and volcanic vents (3)–is thought to have been used in the Nordic pharmacies of the early 20th century as a cough medicine, since the ammonia chloride is an effective expectorant (4).
In more modern times, the addition of sugar made licorice and salty licorice more of a pick-me-up than a prescription. Thousands of flavor additions like coffee, menthol, and chocolate married up with woodsy-sweet, chewy bites and exploded into candy shops in hundreds of forms including diamonds, coins, Swedish fish, and even skulls–a nod to its Gothic look and strong flavors.
Testing Licorice (or Did it Test Us?)
The current staff at The Fika Table is all American-born and therefore are a touch circumspect around black licorice, especially the salty kind. But as a company working in the Nordic baking tradition, we felt obligated to taste-test some of the black licorice varieties available to us in Austin, Texas. Working in the food industry is tough sometimes! If you’re feeling adventurous, we invite you to check them out yourselves–or tell us about others you’ve tried–and let us know what you think. Ratings are out of 5 stars and represent the extremely subjective opinions of myself with input from our intrepid baking team.
Kolsvart, Sweet Licorice + Ginger. Made is Malmö, Sweden.
Central Market North, $5.99
We first saw Kolsvart in Central Market a few months ago and tried their Gädden (Pike) Elderflower and Piggvar (Turbot) Sour Blueberry Swedish Fish. They are delicious. Elderflower flavor is particularly tasty but hard to describe. For reference, “elderflower” is a common descriptor used to describe the taste of Sauvignon Blanc white wine, so by a stretch of transitive property we could possibly say that elderflower tastes a bit like Sauvignon Blanc. The blueberry is coated in a mild “Sour Patch Kids”-type dust and provides a pretty faithful rendition of blueberry flavor (and we like saying “Piggvar”).
Given how much we like the brand, we felt ready to wade into deeper waters, starting with their Sweet Licorice and Ginger Swedish Fish.
“Kolsvart” means “coal-black” or “jet-black,” which is exactly how their licorice comes. The sweet black licorice with ginger was well-received by our crew. The ginger was very mild, and we would have welcomed more. The warming spice is a great pairing with the herbaceous, anise-like licorice base. Licorice is one of those scents that strongly evokes childhood–for some in the form of Good n’ Plenty candies and for others the Black Jack gum of our parents. The texture was like a classic penny-candy Swedish fish but a touch softer, very enjoyable and not too chewy. Overall, the licorice is very pleasant…but we’ll still buy the Elderflower and Sour Blueberry fish every time.
Rating: licorice 3.5 stars, the fruit flavors 5 stars
Lakrids by Bülow Selection Box. Made in Denmark.
Amazon, $30 plus tax/shipping
Lakrids by Bülow is a completely different experience and some might think it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. Why? Because these lakrids are licorice covered in chocolate, bringing an entirely new element to the sweet. Even so, we were curious to try after listening to a conversation with founder Johan Bülow on Nordic Food Tech podcast. The story of their origins resonated with us at The Fika Table–Johan started the company in his mom’s kitchen on the island on Borholm in 2007, much like we started in my home kitchen in 2020.
The packaging alone, a dark matte box with porthole windows for each flavor gave us the sense that this licorice was going to be a high-end experience. $30 is not a small amount to pay for candy but the selection box we received had eight types to try and the quality was excellent. It’s a good introduction to Lakrids by Bülow.
We tried the Bronze (black licorice covered with chocolate and dulce de leche), Gold (black licorice covered in white chocolate and raspberry), Passionfruit (black licorice covered in passionfruit white chocolate) and Salmiakki (salty licorice covered in white chocolate).
Setting aside the Salmiakki, all the licorice was excellent. Of all the black licorice we’ve ever eaten, it is the most sophisticated and balanced. A little harder in consistency, it is longer-lasting and provides unfolding notes of sweet, herbal, and carmelized in succession. The chocolate is a great match and feels like adding cream to coffee–a soothing blanket over some of the underlying complexity.
The Bronze is dark and luxe, with only a little regular salt to offset the richness of the dulce de leche. The Gold features bright raspberry and is the creamiest of the bunch. The Passion Fruit may not meld as well with the licorice, but provides delightfully tangy and fruity contrast.
Our delight in fruit and chocolate faded fast when we encountered the Salmiakki. Much has been written by others on this unique flavor. In researching this post, I came across an article by New York Times writer Mark Binelli who I think says it exactly.
“The licorice had an aggressive presence as well, which might sound like a good thing, a potential balance, but it seemed only to intensify the curdled chemical aftertaste, some combination of diet cola, fennel toothpaste and MSG that multiple sips of water wouldn’t flush.”(4)
No amount of willpower could overcome our intense aversion to salmiakki. The same level of quality was apparent in these chocolate-wrapped bites, but the slow dawning of the acrid, chemical aftereffect was too much.
While beloved by many who grew up with it, it’s hard for someone without the benefit of long exposure and childhood associations to rate anything with salmiakki. The salmiakki in Lakrids by Bülow is high-quality, lovingly-crafted salty licorice and at the same time it’s equally true that we couldn’t stand it. Rather than rating the licorice, we must rate ourselves unqualified to judge.
Rating: 4.5 stars, except salmiakki, which we leave for others to consider
Kolsvart, Salty Smoked Licorice. Made is Malmö, Sweden.
Central Market North, $5.99
We saved the most challenging for last. The Salty Smoked Licorice by Kolsvart creatively blends two Nordic traditions–smoking foods and salmiakki–into one gummy powerhouse.
The idea is poetic–an homage to the salting and smoking of fish like trout, eels, and herring to preserve meat through the dark winter months in the form of a cherished traditional candy.
If we could not handle salmiakki on its own, we were doubly unprepared to pair it with smoke. This candy is for the dyed-in-the-wool licorice fan who wants something even more complex and robust. Other types of salmiakki that push boundaries in this vein are the famous Tyrkisk Peber Original Hot Salmiak & Pepper Candy by candy giant Fazer that contains ammonium chloride powder inside and a spicy kick, or even the Skeleton Shake from Lakrids by Bülow which comes with a side of pure salmiak salt to shower over the candy. We will respectfully pass on all these variations.
Rating: 1 star, but we still love the other Kolsvart candies!
Let’s hear from you, what do you think of black licorice and salmiakki? Did you grow up with it? Share your food memories in the comments or on our social media @thefikatable!