Inside Jacob Hooy & Co.'s cozy little shop at Kloveniersburgwal 10-12, the warm air is scented with a rich, pleasing bouquet of dried herbs, spices and roots.
Among these smells that sooth and stimulate the spirit, the strongest and most easily recognized is licorice. An ancient medicine, licorice is contemporary Holland’s favorite candy.
Dutch people buy more licorice each year than they do tooth paste . . . averaging about four pounds per person, according to Holland Supermarket magazine.
Fondly referred to as zwarte goud or black gold, licorice is sold in every corner apoteker or drogistery , at outdoor markets and in department stores. There are dozens of shapes and flavors, costing $1.60 to $3.50 for 3.53 ounces (100 grams). Children and adults delight in buying pieces that are placed in cone-shaped bags for munching as they walk.
The best and most unusual shop for buying “black gold” is Hooy’s, established in 1743. There customers choose from a large selection of licorice candies, teas and medicinals, as well as unprocessed licorice root, tucked away in time-worn wooden drawers and antique barrels that line the shop’s walls.
Prices might be a few cents more than elsewhere, but the shop’s atmosphere reminds everyone that licorice is part of Dutch tradition and culture.
Why do the Dutch have such a consuming passion for licorice?
“Licorice soothes scratchy throats and eases tickling coughs. The saltier varieties can clear stuffed nasal passages--all the conditions of cold weather. Mostly Dutch people just like the taste,” said J. J. Hilarius, formerly director of Klene Suikerwerkfabrieken, Holland’s oldest and most famous licorice manufacturer.
Dutch licorice tastes different from the sticky, sweet, swizzle sticks or tooth-extracting gooey dots sold in the United States. Also, the Dutch like their licorice salty, a taste described as addictive by people who have grown up with it.
Klene Suikerwerkfabrieken, in the Amsterdam suburb of Hoorn (Protonweg 5), makes 55 varieties of licorice. Of the total production of 95 tons per week, 5-10 tons per year are exported to the United States. Klene’s marketing department says most Americans just haven’t caught on to licorice . . . yet. At least not to the way the Dutch make it.
Hardened licorice root extract, imported from Italy, Greece, Spain, some parts of China and Southern Russia, is mixed with gum Arabic for consistency.
The mixture is cooked into a sticky, thick liquid to which ammonium chloride (for the salty taste), glucose syrup and sugar is added. Sometimes, mint, honey, menthol, anise, bay leaf, eucalyptus or other herbal flavorings are added.
(In less-expensive licorice, modified potato and/or corn starch is substituted for gum Arabic to produce an inferior candy that dissolves too quickly in the mouth.)
Cooked, the gooey liquid is poured into temporary molds made of a powder stamped out of plaster-form presses. After the licorice drys in the molds, the pieces are separated, steam-polished to make them pretty, packed and shipped.
There are bite-size licorice cats, Indian heads, pipes, houses, dots, ovals, triangles, diamonds, clown heads, beehives, shoe laces, dogs, fir trees and many other shapes--each with a different flavor and consistency.
Klene’s biggest sellers are moderately-salty, coin-shaped candies that sit on the tongue and melt slowly. Another favorite is a more-than-a-mouthful rectangle, very salty and sold by the piece. Both of are popular in Scandinavia and Germany, Klene’s two biggest foreign markets. Sweet little cats that are salt-free and chewy appear to be most popular with Americans.
Klene, in business for about 110 years, is widely celebrated for making the best licorice. It claims to be one of the world’s oldest licorice manufacturer in continuous operation as well as one of the first to prepare licorice as a candy.
Until a century ago, licorice was used mostly to relieve cold symptoms, settle upset stomachs, prevent thirst and dehydration. Licorice was known in China about 2,000 years ago, and pieces of licorice root were found in Egyptian King Tutankhamen’s tomb.
An Old Sanskrit text, dated AD 360, claims that the man who regularly drinks a mixture of licorice, clarified butter, honey and milk and abstains from sex, will live for 100 years. Much later, Napoleon took licorice for his nervous stomach and also gave it to his troops to prevent their thirst during battle.
No one knows exactly when licorice first reached the Netherlands, but some say the earliest importers were Dutch sailors returning from Mediterranean trading voyages.
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.
Perhaps licorice is called “black gold,” because the Dutch word for licorice is actually drop, a much less appealing appellation. However, after much research and conjecture, no one has a clue where the word drop came from. It is unrelated to words for licorice in other languages, such as the German lakrits, the Italian liquiritia and the French reglisse.
The Dutch consider the word an oddity, in the same way they find it curious that their country is the world’s biggest manufacturer and consumer of licorice, although none of the essential ingredients are of Dutch origin.
Dutch licorice is varied enough to appeal to almost every palate. After sampling several shapes and flavors selected from Jacob Hooy’s quaint old drawers, or the gleaming jars at drogistery , A. Bremer’s (Albert Cuypstraat 47-49), or the candy counters at De Bijenkorf Department Store at Dam Square, you might want to take licorice home for gifts.
A good source is Chocolaterie Hans Bodt (Bilderdijkstraat 142). Bodt, whose father opened a shop in 1939, offers 16 varieties, half sweet and half salty, which he can package in glass jars or decorative tins. Containers start at about $4; the licorice is less expensive than at other outlets, $1.20 for 100 grams or $2.75 for 250 grams (about eight ounces). Bodt claims many American customers regularly request refills by mail.
A word of warning: People with high blood pressure should limit their intake of licorice. Although ammonium chloride won’t effect you the way sodium chloride or table salt does, licorice itself tends to raise blood pressure.