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The Dutch Love of Salty Licorice Will Never Die

Drop, as it’s called in Dutch, is black licorice flavored with ammonium chloride, an ingredient that’s often found in cough syrup. You can say it’s an acquired taste.

Barbara Woolsey

All photos by the author.

The Netherlands is the world's largest consumer of licorice per capita, something like four pounds per person per year—but this stuff is nothing like Twizzlers, Red Vines, or the licorice whip that Smithers cracks on The Simpsons. It doesn't always come in ropes, and it's not only sweet but also salty, in varying degrees from mild to brutally, and overwhelmingly tart. If you're a foreigner passing through Holland, a local might just jokingly give you one, knowing you'll probably pucker and dry heave in disgust.

Drop, as it's called in Dutch, is black licorice flavored with ammonium chloride, an ingredient that's often found in cough syrup. You can say it's an acquired taste, and in the Netherlands, it's been an ingredient in candy since the 1930s. Drop is a taste that's comforting and nostalgic—after all, a lot of the Dutch have grown up munching away on this stinging, tongue-tingling treat.

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Chef Tom Hienkens.

At least, that's how it was for Tom Hienkens, the chef at Restaurant Greetje, a popular traditional Dutch eatery overlooking Amsterdam's Montelbaan Tower.

He started in Greetje's kitchen as a teenager ten years ago, eventually working his way up to head chef. Hienkens still remembers his first day of work, and going home to tell his mother all about the restaurant's signature licorice dessert.

"We ate [licorice] every day as children, and when we weren't eating it, we were playing with it," said Hienkens. "And I'd never seen it presented in that way before."

Greetje's menu rotates every three months, but the licorice crème brûlée with its accompanying scoop of licorice ice cream is the only dish that's a mainstay.

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Licorice root.

The ice cream starts by melting down licorice root—long sticks of licorice that look exactly like thick, dry twigs. (In Dutch, the name literally translates to "sweet wood" in English.)

"It's something we ate all the time as children," said Hienkens. "Usually at the supermarket, if Mom wanted me to shut up, she'd give me that. And you could chew it all day."

Once melted, the licorice root becomes sticky, and is whipped up with cream and egg yolk until fully mixed and ready to be frozen.

The crème brûlée is made simply with Haribo black licorice strips, a sweet and salty gummy that can be found in most Dutch supermarkets.

The candy sits in milk, infusing the flavor over hours. It's then mixed with egg yolk and sugar, and steamed in the oven for ten minutes. The dessert gets its traditional crisp, caramelized glaze from a ceremonial torching tableside.

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Licorice ice cream and crème brûlée.

You could say it's an interpretation of drop. Much of the salty flavor gets lost in the process, leaving only smooth, creamy tones of licorice behind. And it's really, really sweet (but "that's typical Dutch," according to Hienkens).

"Tourists love it," he said. "It's not the salty taste that's known to locals, so it's surprising for them … but they still enjoy it for what it is, too."

Anybody looking for the traditionally powerful, mouth-numbing drop experience has to go to Oud-Hollandsch Snoepwinkeltje, or the Old Dutch Candy Store. Located in Amsterdam's trendy and scenic Jordaan district (just a short walk away from the Anne Frank Museum), it's a one-stop shop for anything and everything licorice-flavored.

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Licorice varieties at Oud-Hollandsch Snoepwinkeltje.

Over 100 glass jars sit on old-fashioned wooden shelves, each one filled with a different assortment of sweets. There is Dutch licorice in traditional shapes like coins, peas, and diamonds, but then also varying textures, from soft and chewy to brittle. There are licorice lozenges, syrups, toffees, wafer sticks, and even marshmallows. But what you won't see here is anything even closely resembling a Twizzler.

"There is just no such thing as red licorice," said owner Mariska Schaefer, from her authoritative position behind the shop counter. "That means it's dyed, because when it comes out of the ground it can never be that color. If it's any color other than black or brown, it shouldn't be called a licorice. We should be calling it a wine gum."

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Mariska Schaefer.

Schaefer knows what she's talking about. The stylish woman, with the pixie haircut and long, decorated fingernails, opened the candy store 14 years ago. She decided to go into business when a space underneath her apartment opened up, and has been manning the counter herself ever since.

There's an army of regulars that frequent the small but cozy shop. From older people buying gifts for their grandchildren to tourists on Amsterdam food tours, everybody's got a sugar fix, and Schaefer knows what it is. She calls many of the youngsters that come in by name, and chats with them jovially while stuffing candy into the store's signature brown paper bag.

"I've watched many of (the customers) grow up," she said. "I call them my children."

According to Schaefer, salty licorice is ordered more by the adults these days, although kids do go for it sometimes. She herself prefers the mother of all briny drop: the double salted.

"You must really build a tolerance for that," she explained with a laugh.

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Strips of licorice.

For centuries, licorice has been used in various cultures for medicinal purposes and studies show that it can be anti-viral and anti-inflammatory. There is honey licorice, a light brown candy that Schaefer sells, which is said to be good for sore throats. The candy shop also carries a version made from bay leaf and pure licorice paste, and it's hit amongst vocalists.

In 2008, however, the European Commission put out a report stating that eating too much liquorice isn't healthy because of a compound it contains that is linked to high blood pressure and muscle weakness.

As the Dutch saying goes, alles met mate, or "moderation in all things". But for those who are new to the salty stuff, chances are overeating won't really be a problem.