It was returning from a college backpacking trip through Europe when I was first introduced to Dutch Black Licorice. I’m not talking about the bland American Twizzler kind, but the salty, sour, acidy kind they make in Holland. It was on a cheap ferry called the Queen Beatrice from Hoek van Holland back to England to catch my flight back to the States. The channel was very choppy that morning and it felt like the captain was driving straight into every wave like a California surfer. I was about to puke up the breakfast beer and stroopwafel I had eaten at the dock. I must have looked green, and destitute, hanging over the outside rail of the boat, because four young girls from Frisia, the northwesternmost part of Germany next to Holland, came up to me and asked if I was ok. After revealing I was quite queasy, they force-fed me their black licorice and told me everything would be all right.
The four Frisian girls who saved my life – note the blonde on the right with a pocketful and mouthful of stomach-settling Dutch black licorice.
I bit into the hard black licorice and a super acidy, salty ammonium chloride liquid came seeping out. A new world opened up just then. Although it was unexpected and different, I immediately fell in love – both with the licorice, and the Dutch. Being close to the sea, it must be a common remedy for seasickness to the Dutch. My stomach was relieved and I spent the next hour in great conversation with and learning about Frisian history and their pop culture. They gave me the rest of their black licorice and left me on my way back to Gatwick Airport.
Black licorice has long been known for its nausea and cold relieving, and anti-inflammatory properties. Napoleon took it for his nervous stomach and give it to his troops to prevent their thirst in battle. Licorice root has even been found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs.
I shared the black licorice back home, but when it was gone, I found it difficult to find in the “Nati. It’s funny because Cincinnati had an early love of black licorice. Mueller’s Licorice, one of America’s only four producers of black licorice, lasted nearly 90 years in production, which ended at their plant in Norwood. In America, black licorice was used as a flavor in tobacco products, to enhance the crave. Mueller promoted candy cigarettes and cigars to children to shape them as future smokers.
So, for several years my black licorice supply chain was dry. That was until I began working with Debby, a native Amsterdamer. When I saw she had a supply of Dutch black licorice on her desk, we immediately connected, and now I get a fresh supply of authentic Dutch black licorice annually from her around the time of my birthday.
There is nothing more Dutch than black licorice. It should be listed as their national food. It’s certainly their contribution to international confectionery. I would put it higher in national importance than tulips, wooden shoes and stroopwafels. The Dutch make over 150 kinds of black licorice alone, not counting the other things they do with black licorice, like enrobing them in chocolate and other sweet coatings. The Good and Plenty candy has its roots in this Dutch black licorice mastery. They also are commonly flavored with mint, menthol, bay leaf, honey and a variety of other herbals.
The average Dutch person eats 4 pounds per year of drop, what they call black licorice, and most don’t leave home on vacation without a good supply of it. There are four main types of drop – soft and sweet, soft and salty, hard and sweet and hard and salty, and they come in a limitless variety of shapes and sizes. The production of black licorice is an over $200 million dollar industry in the Netherlands. The Dutch buy more black licorice than they do toothpaste.
But why do the Dutch so magnanimously love black licorice? It’s a polarizing flavor to most nations – you either love it or you hate it, but the Dutch almost unanimously love it. Anise and black licorice flavors are very popular in Northwest Germany and Scandinavia too, with Jaegermesiter liquor made in Wolfenbuttel, Saxony, and the variety of anise flavored Christmas cookies made in that area.
But the flavor is also popular as ouzo liquor in Greece. That’s because licorice root is not grown anywhere in Holland, but in the southern Mediterranean, imported as a hardened root extract from Greece, as well as Italy, Spain, and some parts of China and Southern Russia. It is wrapped in bay leaves for transport and mixed with gum Arabic for consistency. In cheap licorice, modified potato and/or corn starch is substituted for gum Arabic. But that produces an inferior candy that dissolves too quickly in the mouth.
No one knows exactly when licorice first reached the Netherlands, but some say the earliest importers were Dutch sailors returning from Mediterranean trading voyages where it was grown. The first mention of licorice in Dutch literature is in Jacob Van Maerlant’s 13th-Century poem, “The Flower of Nature.” Licorice has been commonly used in Holland ever since. The British claim they were the first to use licorice in confectionery, starting in the 18th century, but the Dutch have been doing it much longer. One of the oldest licorice shops is Amsterdam’s Hooy’s founded in 1743, Klene Suikerwerkfabrieken, also in Amsterdam, claim that at 110 years old, they are the world’s oldest continually operating black licorice confectioner.
The Dutch love for the flavor might be linked with their virtual monopoly of the Eastern spice trade in the 1600s. They imported nutmeg and cloves from their colonies in the East Indies to Europe. This spice trade monopoly is what made Amsterdam the richest nation in the world, and gave rise to the term Middle Class. It’s also what funded the great period of art that made the Dutch Masters like Rembrandt. So, they might have had an early palate affliction to exotic new flavors.
Debby, my chief drop supplier, comes from a confectionery family. Her father ran a bakery for decades in Amsterdam and was famous for an anise/black licorice flavored cookie he invented called the Moppen, which means ‘a chunk of something.’ That cookie is still being produced by bakeries in Amsterdam. So when I asked Debby why the Dutch are such masters of black licorice and where their affliction for it came, she replied, “Because its good shit.” That’s really all we need to know.