Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

The new black is a very old black

Licorice: candy land's comeback kid

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If emerald green, orange, electric cobalt blue or just about anything you want to tout as "new" is the new black, then a classic — licorice — is the new black when it comes to candy. At least it's the new dark chocolate.

Maybe it's our eternally human penchant for novelty; maybe it's our obsession over calories (nine black Nibs deliver 35 calories vs. 208 calories from seven chocolate mini-Doves). Maybe it's the ancient provenance of licorice finally being recognized, or our cultural homogenization that's bringing the European love of licorice to our doorstep.

Or just maybe it's the study that confirmed licorice increases blood flow to the penis and to the vagina, or the New Scientist report out of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, that showed carbenoxolone, a compound derived from licorice root and already proven effective in reducing the healing time for ulcers and sores, reduced levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in older men, thereby improving memory-related aging symptoms. (I bet those last two bits got your attention, and reframed licorice in a whole new context in your world.)

Whatever the reason, licorice is enjoying a renaissance. But before we roll out the details, let's get the spelling out of the way.

"Licorice," if you're reaching for your spell check, is the Canadian, Australian and American preferred spelling, one more closely entangled with the Anglo-French lycorys, from the Old French licoresse and the Latin name of the plant, Glycyrrhiza glabra, which is based on the Greek for "sweet root" (glykys for "sweet" and rhyza meaning "root"). "Liquorice" is the British preference, a variant that somehow got entangled, wrongly, with the word "liquor."

So despite the excellent licorice from England — the amazing licorice allsorts, the Pontefract cakes or coins, so-named for the West Yorkshire town of Pontefract that was once the heart of licorice production in Britain — "licorice" it is, and wonderful it is, whether you're up to your eyeballs in chocolate or not.

These days, Kelly Czekurlon, manager of The Great Glass Elevator Candy Shop in Whistler's Marketplace, is ordering up to 30 kg of licorice candy a month to satisfy the growing demand.

The shop carries a dozen different types, including the traditional licorice babies — which are now hard to find and used to go by a slightly different, now offensive name you'll recall if you're of a certain age — skinny, sweet and a little bit chewy, with a nice brown colour inside.

"The more natural licorice is brown inside, since more of the licorice root is used in that candy," says Kelly. "So you'll know there are more preservatives and other (ingredients) in it if it's not brown."

Other ingredients include things like gelatin for texture and anise or an anise-like flavouring agent called anethole for flavour, although licorice, with its floral and almond notes, has a much more complex aroma than anethole.

Then there's the popular school chalk with a white candy coating, which looks like its name implies, although this chalk would be better suited to secret writing on a blackboard for spies as the "chalk" is black inside. And double salt licorice from Holland with the distinctive DZ imprint, also popular in Nordic countries and Germany.

The salmiak truffles are a soft, slightly salty and sweet treat with a mere hint of the distinctive ammonium chloride flavour salmiak is known for. In its more potent forms, salmiak licorice is definitely an acquired taste due to the powerful ammonia notes.

At the Great Glass Elevator you'll find Pontefract coins, also called Pontefract cakes or pomfrets, produced in Yorkshire since the late 1600s, as well as licorice allsorts, also from the U.K. and much better than those made in North America. The retro Goodies in neon pinks, greens and yellows will remind just about every generation of being a kid. The best-selling licorice cream rocks — licorice-wrapped tubes surrounding a fruity, creamy filling — and that uniquely chewy Australian black licorice are all great ways to explore your inner licorice lover once you're ready to move on from Twizzlers and other sweet treats.

Still, says Czekurlon, it is far and away more European kids, rather than North American ones, who go for black licorice at the Candy Shop. North American kids, for the most part, are "really into gummies — straight-up sugar."

Kid or not, if you find yourself on The Drive in Vancouver, check out the Licorice Parlour at 1002 Commercial Drive, where owner Mary Jane (a.k.a. Watermelon) brings in 65 varieties of licorice, and whips up a wonderful cashew milk "nice cream" flavoured with salted licorice and lavender. In keeping with your inner or overt child, she also sells some of the craziest hula hoops you've ever seen, which are as much fun as the licorice wheels you can unravel like a pinwheel.

All playfulness aside, licorice really does have some remarkable qualities.

The plant itself is native to Eurasia, northern Africa and western Asia. It's a perennial with pretty light blue to violet-coloured flowers and sticky stems that grow to about a metre in height. According to the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens' website, there are about 20 species in the genus, many of which are grown for candy, beverages and medicine. It is cultivated for its rhizomes, or underground stems, which contain the compound glycyrrhizin — 50 times sweeter than sugar.

For centuries licorice has been used as a medicinal plant, to soothe coughs and sore throats, sore mouths, stomach ulcers and other inflammatory conditions. Today its compounds are added to cough syrup and lozenges, and used to mask the unpleasant taste of other medicines. In modern Chinese herbalism, it's also used to counteract food poisoning and, in conjunction with other anti-spasmodics, to lessen menstrual cramps.

As for its aphrodisiacal effects, according to a report in BBC Science and Nature, black licorice aroma, alone or in combination with other aromas, was shown to be one of the top aromas that enhanced penile blood flow in a study conducted by the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. For women, vaginal blood flow was increased by an average of 13 per cent by the aroma of licorice and — surprisingly — cucumber.

I can hear the clicks and pencil scratchings adding to the shopping lists now.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who's been buying an awful lot of licorice lately.