Culture

Why are we so obsessed with liquorice in Scandinavia?

By Signe Wulff

Like coriander and blue cheese: salty liquorice is an acquired taste that many either love or hate. Across the Nordics, it's predominantly the former – and we take a deep dive into why

Foreigners visiting Scandinavia notice our bike paths, our anti-hierarchical workplaces – and our love of liquorice. And we're not talking the sweet, friendly kind of liquorice. No, it's the salty, fiery, and feisty kind that we Scandinavians love. When it comes to the craving for salt ammoniac liquorice, we truly are in the minority on a global scale.

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According to the Disgusting Food Museum in Malmö, there are only six nations that love the salty liquorice: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and the Netherlands. At the tasting counter in the museum, you can find samples of different foods that really divide opinion and whose
popularity depends on whether you grew up with the food in question. This is what we call an acquired taste.

At the museum’s counter there are various beetles and caterpillars, Kalle's kaviar, particularly pungent cheeses such as the English Stinking Bishop (washed-rind cheese) and the Sardinian su callu (goat kid's rennet cheese) – all for you to taste. And finally, at the disgust level with the Icelandic specialty hákarl and the Swedish surströmning, respectively fermented shark and herring, you’ll find the salty liquorice. Represented by svenskjävlar (Swedish devils), branded with the pay off: “The saltiest liquorice in the world”.

Photo: Nicolaj Didriksen

Photo: Nicolaj Didriksen

For a Scandinavian, this point at the tasting counter is a wonderful break from the vomit-inducing food samples, but for visitors from the rest of the world, the little svenskjävlar are gross at the highest level.

There is no clear explanation as to why we Scandis love our salty sweets so much. Actually the Nordic countries together consume 80 - 90 % of the world's production of liquorice. The actual mixture of ammoniochloride and liquorice is also a mystery, but is believed to originate from the times, when liquorice root was used as a medicine for coughs. So was ammoniochloride – and at a certain time somebody mixed up these two ingredients in throat lozenges. Liquorice as candy has only been around since the late 18th, early 19th century where for instance the Danish Galle & Jessen – known for the Gajol pastilles – started producing candy, including liquorice sweets.

But why do we have such veneration for a product that can harm us? Ammonium chloride in large amounts can have a decalcifying effect on bones and children's intake should therefore be limited. Previously in Denmark, liquorice products containing more than 5% ammonium chloride were required to be labeled 'adult liquorice – not children's liquorice'. In the EU, the concentration of ammonium chloride is simply not allowed in foods. The Nordic countries have a special permission to add it to our sweets.

Ammonium chloride is also an ingredient in hair shampoo, in certain kinds of glue and cleaning product and in batteries. Not that appetising. It can also cause high blood pressure. And yet no northener wants their liquorice taken from them. Our love for that special taste may be linked to the fact that we have a long tradition for preserving our food with salt and so the salty liquorice seems familiar and comforting to our tastebuds. The mix of salty and sweet can also be found in for instance pickled herring.

Photo: Nicolaj Didriksen

Not only for the sweet kitchen

At the beginning of the 2000s, liquorice began to appear in places where it had not been seen before. Liquorice was no longer firmly defined as a piece of candy, but could appear in cakes, ice cream and other desserts. At a certain time – when the trend was at its peak – you couldn't find a flødebolle (Danish chocolate covered marshmallow), a cookie or piece of chocolate that wasn't sprinkled with liquorice powder. Even for a liquorice aficionado it got a little too much. Fortunately, things have found a more reasonable level now.

Liquorice powder, sirup, and spread are all very well integrated also in the savoury kitchen amongst both professional and amateur chefs. Pork and chicken marinated in liquorice and grilled with fennel is a wonderful combination. A little liquorice adds a pleasant depth to the taste – without you necessarily being able to define that it is liquorice that adds these wonderful layers to the meal,.

Photo: Nicolaj Didriksen

Photo: Nicolaj Didriksen

Taste for yourself

It’s a bit like coriander, blue cheese, and the English Marmite spread: The salty liquorice is such an acquired taste and either you love it or simply hate the stuff. Whether you’re in for just a taste or to chase down the best liquorice experience, here are some of the most important brands and producers.

Denmark:
To be found everywhere: Blue Jeans, Heksehyl (named after a noisy kind of fireworks), Piratos
High end: The brand Bagsværd lakrids (award-winning, Danish liquorice caramels) and of course Lakrids by Bülow which has really put a pin in the liquorice world map.

Sweden
To be found everywhere: Djunglevrål
High end: Kolsvart and Haupt’s Svenskjävlar (the saltiest liquorice in the world) and the brand Nordisk Lakritskök.

Finland
Finnish lakritsi is soft and bouncy and exists in both a sweet and a salty version, that is simply known as Finnish liquorice in other countries. Try to taste them against one another. You should also try Tyrkisk Pepper Soft & Salty and Salmiakki kala (salty fish).

Iceland
Sterkur Draumur (a liquorice chocolate bar named “strong dream”) and þristur (chocolate fudge, filled with liquorice pieces).

Phrasebook for the liquorice lover

Etymology: From medieval Latin liquiritia (transformed after liquor 'liquid') from Greek glykyrrhiza 'liquorice root', from glykys 'sweet' and rhiza 'root'.