Liquorice, or drop as it’s called here, is arguably the nation’s favourite confectionary. What’s the fuss all about?
Facts and figures
According to manufacturer, Klene, 33.6 million kilos of the stuff are eaten annually in the Netherlands to a value of 140 million euros. That‘s 8 billion pieces of liquorice. With three quarters of the population consuming it, it’s the highest consumption per capita in the world. Unsurprisingly, the Netherlands is the largest producer in the EU. The flavour comes from the root of the Glycyrrhiza glabra plant. There are numerous varieties of the sweet in different shapes and sizes. "We sell 85 different kinds of liquorice, but there are more than 300 kinds," said Annemarie van Ingen, proprietor of the sweet stand at the Saturday market on Burgwal in Delft.
The inventor of liquorice is unknown, but it has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries, thus you'll often see it for sale at pharmacies. Drogisterij de Salamander on the Markt has been in business for 250 years, owner Robert Vlugt said: "Pure liquorice can be seen as a kind of medicine. It is used to treat coughs, and we also know that it raises the blood pressure a little and can soothe stomach complaints." Napoleon is rumoured to have taken boxes of the stuff with him on his campaigns to ease stomach pain, as well as giving it to his troops to prevent thirst and dehydration during battle. In 2008 the European Commission reported that too much liquorice can not only raise blood pressure but can also cause muscle weakness, chronic fatigue and lower testosterone levels in men too.
The root powder can be used in cooking, for example, or to make tea. "We make liquorice powder ourselves according to an old recipe in sweet and salty flavours," said Vlugt.
This is the kind most commonly encountered elsewhere in the world. Soft favourites are griotten that look like brown sugar cubes, and school chalk with a minty shell and liquorice filling. Other soft varieties include shoelaces, pyramids, harlekijntjes and kokindjes. "Gum arabic is often used to make a firm chewy liquorice like the honey ones," said Vlugt. The hard types include the beehives with honey, coin-shapes in various denominations, and little kittens that taste great but can stick to your teeth and destroy any fillings you have.
Ocean-themed liquorice like herrings, starfish and seahorses are usually salty and soft. Hard versions include the farm-themed pieces. Keep an eye out for the ‘DZ' stamp, meaning double salty. "You shouldn't begin with a double salty liquorice, otherwise it'll come straight back out and be thrown away," said Vlugt. You'll be known as a 'drop-out' if you do this. They’re certainly an acquired taste and can bring tears to your eyes.
You often see salmiak-flavoured treats on the shelves along with liquorice, but what is it? "Salmiak is ammonium chloride, and ammonium chloride or salmiak salt is what makes the salty liquorice salty," explained Vlugt. The Latin for ammonium chloride is ‘sal ammoniac' which has become 'salmiak’. Salty liquorice can contain ammonium chloride in concentrations of up to about 8%.
"In Italy pure liquorice is popular, in Finland and Sweden it can‘t be salty enough, and here in the Netherlands we like all sorts," said Vlugt. Popular flavours are bay leaf, thyme and menthol. You can even get a liquorice flavoured liquor. But just why is it so popular here? A fellow customer pointed out the obvious: "It's just tasty that’s why!" You can decide for yourself. Buy a mixed bag to see which your taste buds prefer.
This is an updated version of a previous Survival Guide article.
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