Saltier the Licorice, Happier the Country. Just Look at Finland …

This article was originally published in the New York Times Magazine as part of their Candy Series on Oct 24, 2018… It tells you a great deal about Finland, so I hope that the NYT agrees to having it re-published! Yiuy can read the original article on https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/…/candy-salty-licorice-finland-happiness.html   


My journey to the dark heart of salmiakki — the uniquely savory, deeply strange licorice that Finland just can’t quit.

By MARK BINELLI

 In January 1940, in the pages of this very magazine, a writer by the excellent name of Hudson Strode published an article with the headline “Sisu: A Word That Explains Finland.” A Finnish concept that’s tricky to translate into English with any real precision, sisu represents something like a deep well of inner fortitude. The Wikipedia entry includes links to “stiff upper lip,” “cojones” and “chutzpah,” but none of those phrases or words quite capture it. A “special kind of strong will” is the definition Strode goes with, something drawn upon by the stoic in order to persevere in the face of extreme adversity — say, winter, if you live in Lapland.

At one point in the article, Strode visits a Finnish town near the Russian border and meets the local sheriff. For sentimental reasons, this sheriff carries around a dagger, which he hands to Strode. Apparently a previous owner used the blade to fend off six attackers. “They fought for an hour,” the sheriff says. “He cut the six to pieces. I saw the finish of the fight — it was a glorious display of sisu.” Strode doesn’t record his own response, but he seems impressed. The sheriff slips the knife back into its leather holster and gazes to the east. “We shall have need of sisu,” he observes gravely, “to face what may come shortly.”

Reading about Strode’s journey — which took him to Finland at the start of World War II, only months before the Soviet invasion — I thought about my own rapidly approaching trip to the same country, for the same magazine, 79 years later. I smiled at the pleasing symmetry. Granted, my surname does not double as an active verb, not even in Italian. Also, I was going to Finland to report an article on salty licorice. But otherwise, our tasks were not dissimilar. Strode had introduced his readers to a word that explained a distant country and its underlying values. I would try to do the same, only with a really weird flavor of candy.

There would be need of sisu to face what might come shortly.

Throughout much of the world, licorice remains one of humanity’s most divisive confections. Hervé This, one of the food scientists who coined the term “molecular gastronomy,” likes to use licorice to attack the notion that humans possess four basic tastes. You might reflexively think of licorice as sweet, but it’s not, really, nor is it salty, sour or bitter. (Or umami, for that matter, This adds.) The confounding nature of licorice’s flavor has given rise to a sharp partisanship. Licorice candy has been compared, astutely, to the Grateful Dead, by none other than the Grateful Dead singer Jerry Garcia, who allowed in an interview: “Our audience is like people who like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”

To extend Garcia’s simile, albeit imperfectly, that would make salty licorice — salmiakki in Finland, where they consume the most potent flavors — the candy equivalent of a 47-minute version of “Dark Star.” Meaning, for superfans only.

Finland ranked fifth worldwide in per capita candy consumption according to a 2017 study by the London-based market-research firm Euromonitor International. Bobby Doherty for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Maggie Ruggiero.

With salmiakki, that fan base is clustered almost entirely in Northern Europe, in what Jukka Annala, the author of a book on salmiakki and the founder and president of the Finnish Salty Licorice Association, refers to as the seven “salty-licorice countries”: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, the Netherlands and Germany (in its north). I should explain here that if you read “salty licorice” and think, “Well, I enjoy a sea-salt chocolate-chip cookie; how bad could this stuff be?” the salt used in salmiakki is not sea salt or even iodized table salt but ammonium chloride — sal ammoniacum in Latin, salmiac in English — an astringent, extremely bitter chemical compound formed, like all salts, by mixing a base and an acid, which in the case of salmiac are ammonia and either hydrochloric acid or hydrogen chloride.

At this point, you might wonder, “How is this different from the deeply unpleasant sour candies my own beloved children torture themselves with?” The thing is, in salty-licorice countries, salmiakki is not some niche product marketed exclusively at kids. It’s a respectable treat option for all ages and demographics. In fact, some packages are marked “not licorice for children.” In Helsinki, I scouted at least a dozen convenience stores and groceries, and every candy section therein contained at least one full display rack, sometimes several, dedicated exclusively to salmiakki. Certain brands packaged themselves like breath mints, in stylish cardboard packs, to appeal directly to adults. Your classic Finnish salmiakki comes in the shape of a black diamond, but you can also find salty-licorice dragster wheels, pirate coins, farm animals, “witch whistles” (which look more like gray cigarette butts), pacifiers, pastilles, skulls, hockey pucks, octopi, long flat strips resembling squid-ink fettuccine and, of course, traditional Swedish fish.

Amid the set of country-themed emoji released by Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in late 2015, there’s one for salmiakki — an ecstatic woman clutching a pair of black diamonds — described on the English-language website as “something Finns can’t live without.” “It’s sort of the national candy,” Annala told me. Which is saying something, because tiny Finland tends to punch far above its weight when it comes to candy appetites over all. A 2017 study by the London-based market-research firm Euromonitor International ranked the country fifth worldwide in per capita candy consumption. Three other salty-licorice countries, Sweden, the Netherlands and Norway, placed third, ninth and 10th. (The United States didn’t even crack the Top 10.)

Here’s another interesting statistic: Finland just scored the top spot on the 2018 World Happiness Report. It’s produced by a United Nations initiative based on global polling data from Gallup, and you can make of the methodology what you will, but Finns reported themselves happier than any other nationality on earth, and they were followed on the list by three Nordic neighbors: Norway, Denmark and Iceland. Americans, meanwhile, came in at a dismal 18th. Correlation does not mean causation, but come on, this is totally causation, right? All those salty-licorice countries clustered at the very top? Maybe it’s not so crazy to think about reported national happiness in relationship to something like a favorite national candy, because what is candy, after all, if not an elemental signifier of happiness and also something extraordinarily culturally specific and wrapped up in nostalgia and childhood memories and, by proxy, national identity?

So when considering the romanticized notion of Scandinavia that’s taken hold of the non-Nordic imagination in recent years — a land of a happy citizenry, of generous social-welfare programs and prisons nicer than our schools and schools nicer than even that, a land of hygge and Noma and Björk — could examining their love of salty licorice be one small but crucial means of unlocking a secret to living that the rest of us, particularly those of us all the way down at No.18, gorging ourselves on king-size Snickers bars like overgrown children unable to handle complicated flavors, haven’t figured out?

Annala had offered to arrange a salty-licorice tasting for me in Helsinki, as well as convene a meeting of the F.S.L.A.’s Salmiakkikonklaavi (Salmiakki Conclave), the ruling body that awards a Salty Licorice of the Year honor at the group’s spring gala. The first gala took place in 1998, shortly after the founding of the F.S.L.A., whose membership numbers about 80. One year, Annala told me, “some people misunderstood that the word ‘gala’ was an ironic thing and came in gowns.”

I was grateful for Annala’s offer. Though it’s no longer especially popular in America, I happen to enjoy black licorice, or at least I used to as a boy, when it came in the shoestring-length “whips” more common back then. (These had the added bonus of really stinging if you managed to snap, say, a younger brother’s arm or cheek just so. What can I say? “Indiana Jones” had just come out. We dug whips.) By Nordic standards, however, my licorice palate lacked sophistication. In the United States, our favorite licorice snack, far and away, remains the crimson middle finger that is the red Twizzler, which is technically not even licorice — those Twizzlers are strawberry-flavored, not licorice-flavored, contain no licorice extract and offer all the masticatory pleasures of an edible candle — and which I’d imagine for licorice purists is akin to stuffing a loaf of Wonder Bread into a poster tube and calling what comes out the other end a baguette.

Annala, diplomatically, made no mention of Twizzlers when we met for lunch at one of Helsinki’s most venerable restaurants, the Ravintola Sea Horse, which has been around since the 1930s and is still a haunt of artists and cultural figures. The house specialty, fried Baltic herring, comes stacked like kindling on an oversize plate. Annala greeted me from a booth. In picturing him, a middle-aged professional obsessed enough with his favorite candy to start a fan club, I expected some combination of zany and plump, but he turned out to be a trim man with a neat, graying beard, pale blue eyes and a slight air of Nordic melancholy. He apologized for his low energy: He was just recovering from the flu. By day, Annala works as an editor at the Finnish News Agency S.T.T., the main wire service in Finland. “Salmiakki,” his handsome and lavishly researched coffee-table book, was published in 2001.

In the book, Annala traces the origins of salty licorice to early-20th-century pharmacies, when chemists in Finland and parts of Scandinavia began selling salmiakki as a cough medicine. (Ammonium chloride acts as an expectorant, which adds credence to the commonly cited theory that the people in certain colder climates were initially drawn to salty licorice for health reasons.) The salmiakki most often came in powdered form in little envelopes, though syrups and diamond-shaped lozenges were also available. Salmiakki, like traditional licorice, is made from licorice root, which is mixed with wheat flour and turned into a paste that is generally dyed black. (The natural color of licorice-root extract is closer to the ocher shade of powdered salmiakki.) Additional flavors can be added to the paste — ammonium chloride in the case of salmiakki, but also anise, toffee, menthol — before it’s molded into candy shapes.

Even before the addition of ammonium chloride, licorice root had been used as a respiratory and digestive aid for millenniums. It turns up in the “Charaka-Samhita,” an ancient Hindu medical text, and in Theophrastus’ “Enquiry Into Plants.” And at least according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, “lycuresse” is both “good for the voyce” and “doth loose fleume.” (The O.E.D. also quotes the English writer R.D. Blackmore’s 1869 novel “Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor:” “I cough sometimes in the winter-weather, and father gives me lickerish.”) Sometime around 1760, an English apothecary named George Dunhill receives credit for being the first to add sugar to the licorice lozenges he sold at his shop, in the Yorkshire town of Pontefract, cementing the herbal medicine’s off-label use as a sweet. So-called Pontefract Cakes are still sold in the United Kingdom, though now they’re manufactured by the German candy giant Haribo.

After our meal, Annala unzipped his backpack and removed a jar of salty licorice produced by one of his favorite salmiakki manufacturers, Namitupa, a small-batch label out of Ilmajoki, a town in southwestern Finland. The licorice was in powdered form, in the old pharmacy style, which Annala adored. The F.S.L.A. named it Salmiakki of the Year for 2012. Annala unscrewed the lid, instructed me to hold out my hand and tapped a modest pile into the center of my palm. “It’s a bit messy, but this is the traditional way to do it,” Annala explained. Then he shrugged, apologetic. “Not so hygienic. Not so aesthetic.”

I glanced around anxiously, feeling as though we should have maybe skulked off to a toilet stall before getting into this part of the interview. The powder was extremely fine and looked like ground cumin. I’ll note that before my investigations into salmiakki, I had never tasted it, and my original plan had been to meet Annala in a virginal state. But then a friend heard about the article and ended up bringing some Dutch salty licorice — a gift from a Scandinavian ex-girlfriend — to a bar one afternoon, so I broke down and tried it. Having seen a series of YouTube videos involving non-salty-licorice-country children being tricked into eating salty licorice, I have to admit: I expected worse. The Dutch candy, a coin-size black disc, had a mild saltiness that canceled out the licorice flavor, but just barely, leaving me feeling as if I were gnawing on a savory leather button. So, not my first choice of things to put in my mouth, sure, but also not the makings of “Jackass”-style reaction videos.

“This is different,” Annala assured me. “This is real Finnish salmiakki. Quite strong stuff.” Heaping some of the powder into his own palm, he said, “Now you lick it.”

Had I expected things to proceed more in the fashion of a genteel tasting at a Lexington whiskey distillery and less like, say, a scene from a William S. Burroughs novel in which the characters ingest weird, made-up drugs? Yes, I had.

Anyway. I licked it. The salmiakki tasted as if someone had made a bouillon cube out of a briny licorice stock, then crushed it into a powder. My tongue immediately tingled. After my experience with the underwhelming Dutch licorice, I hadn’t been prepared for how — what’s the tasting note I’m looking for? — ammonium-chloride-forward Finnish salmiakki would be. It was pungent, in a saltier-than-salt way that brought some heat. The licorice had an aggressive presence as well, which might sound like a good thing, a potential balance, but it seemed only to intensify the curdled chemical aftertaste, some combination of diet cola, fennel toothpaste and MSG that multiple sips of water wouldn’t flush.

Across the table, Annala seemed lost in a reverie. “Mmm,” he murmured, closing his eyes for a moment, as if to shut out all senses but taste. “So delicious.”

Over the course of the next seven hours, at multiple locations, we consumed a considerable, perhaps unhealthful, amount of salmiakki. I tasted brittle black tokens strong enough to make my eyes water. Annala happily crunched several at once, as if he’d just plucked his favorite bits from a sack of trail mix, announcing, “It’s like eating iron!” We drank shots of salty-licorice vodka, a popular spirit throughout Scandinavia. (In “The Nordic Cookbook” the Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson, whose restaurant Faviken Magasinet is an internationally lauded purveyor of New Nordic cuisine, writes about teenage friends making bootleg versions of the stuff by packing salty licorice into a three-quarter-filled bottle of vodka and running it through the dishwasher.)

We met two members of the Salmiakkikonklaavi, Juha Hellsten and Kaija Collin, at a bar with red carpeting and white plastic-laminate bistro tables that felt like someone’s idea of the future in 1967. Annala placed a mixed bag of loose salmiakki in the center of the table and tore down its sides so they looked like the petals of a giant flower, the pile of licorice now a teeming black bulb. Choosing a subtly flavored Swedish fish, Annala twisted it between his fingers, then took a bite and nodded approvingly. “It’s mild, but has just enough salty licorice to make it acceptable. And the structure is very good and playful.”

Hellsten, who works in management at the telecommunications company Ericsson and has been known to partly fill a suitcase with salmiakki when traveling to non-salty-licorice countries, agreed: “It’s not a top scorer. But a reliable defender on the team.” Annala said one thing he loved about salmiakki was the “drama of the candy,” by which he meant that the flavor evolved as you experienced it, like different acts of a play. “Sometimes there is a shock effect on the surface, then it is sweet inside,” he explained. “What’s happening changes from the first to the middle to the end to the aftermath.”

Collin, who works at her family’s asbestos-removal company, bit into a black alligator with a white belly and frowned. “This is not salmiakki,” she said.

Annala tried one and determined that the belly was, in fact, marshmallow. “It’s a crime to call this salty licorice!” he said, throwing down the candy in disgust.

Collin handed me a black lump and said: “Now I want you to try this one. No one else does it. Tar candy!”

It was a Tervapiru (“Tar Devil”), and it did, indeed, smell like a black-market cigarette with the filter torn off. I felt as if it also tasted strongly of tar, though I can’t say for sure, not having knowingly tasted tar before. (Finns add tar, derived in their country from wood rather than coal, to various foods as a smoky flavoring agent.)

“I remember tasting pure ammonium chloride,” Hellsten said. He had pushed up the sleeves of his cardigan and was rooting around in the licorice pile.

“Did you like it?” Annala asked.

“ ‘Like’ is perhaps not the right word,” Hellsten said.

At a certain point, I hit a wall. When someone shook a couple of strong salmiakki mints into my hand, I popped only one of them, palming the second and slipping it into my shoe while pretending to scratch my ankle.

Someone brought up a 2012 move by the European Union to sharply curb the allowable per-gram amount of ammonium chloride in food, which would have effectively banned salmiakki and possibly triggered a Finnexit. A Finnish E.U. bureaucrat helped intervene in the end, and candy was exempted from the rule. Annala invited the bureaucrat to the F.S.L.A. gala, but she never responded.

Fazer is the unofficial candy brand of Finland, the national equivalent of Hershey or Cadbury. Its founder, Karl Fazer, was born in Helsinki in 1866, one year after Jean Sibelius. His father, a Swiss immigrant, worked as a furrier, but Karl, the youngest son of eight children, always loved baking with his mother, and after an apprenticeship in St. Petersburg, he opened a French-Russian confectionery shop in Helsinki in 1891. By 1922, Fazer had begun mass-producing the milk-chocolate bars upon which he would build his fortune, their patriotic “Fazer Blue” wrappers a nod to the cross on the Finnish flag. (The country achieved independence from Russia five years earlier.) The company remains in the hands of the Fazer family, with 15,000 employees worldwide. Some of the products introduced in Karl’s day are still on the market, including Mignons, handmade Easter delicacies that require deyolking actual eggs, then refilling the intact shells with hazelnut chocolate.

Fazer is also the largest producer of licorice in the country. In 1927, the company bought a British-Finnish biscuit-and-licorice company and released its signature line of sweet licorice the following year. The wrapper design featured a racist “golliwog” caricature, the British equivalent of a Sambo doll, which, depressingly, was not uncommon in itself — you can find historic examples of noxious candy packaging throughout the world — but which Fazer failed to jettison until 2007, in part under pressure from the European Union. (Why the company took so long to act is a “good and hard question,” a Fazer spokeswoman, Liisa Eerola, told me in an email. “Culturally, Finland was quite isolated for a long time. … Looking back, it is easy to say that we moved far too late.”) Fazer has been making salmiakki since 1938, and its portfolio of salty offerings now includes products like Super SalmiakkiPantteri (“Panther”) and Tyrkisk Peber (“Turkish Pepper”), so spicy that it’s ranked like hot sauce, with a flaming-star rating system.

All these treats are made at the Fazer complex in Lappeenranta, two hours from Helsinki by train and about 16 miles from the Russian border. The factory is a century-old redbrick building with a series of modern additions, built along the shore of the largest lake in Finland. It has 300 employees and runs three to five shifts, depending on the candy needs of the nearest holiday. In 2017, the factory produced 19,200 tons of candy: Mariannes (white peppermint pearls with chocolate centers), Tutti Fruttis (variously flavored gummies), Avecs (petite “French”-style pastilles), Amerikans (much larger “American”-style pastilles, which my tour guide enjoyed teasing me about) and all manner of salmiakki. Fifteen percent of Lappeenranta’s output is salty licorice, translating to roughly 3,000 tons of the stuff last year.

The factory was very much a typical factory in certain ways (vast, noisy) and more specifically a candy factory in others (my shoes stuck to the floors from the sugar, and there was a pleasant, lingering odor of fruit more or less wherever I went). As thoroughly automated as any car plant I’d visited in Detroit, the place felt, as those factories did, like both an extraordinary human achievement and an allegory for human redundancy in the form of a mechanical tableau vivant. Stamping presses pounded candy shapes into sheets of starch powder; licorice or sugary fillings were squirted into molds; robot arms hoisted trays onto drying racks. In one room, a lone human employee manually plucked misshapen candies from a conveyor belt, tossing them into a plastic hopper at his feet. I found myself hoping the belt would accidentally speed up and force him to begin gobbling candy, Lucy-and-Ethel-style. But apparently there’s an optical scanner also checking the candy shapes, and if anything goes wrong, an alarm will sound.

As the tour continued, I couldn’t help wondering how future international demand might affect the facility. After all, we’re living in a time when fashionable omnivorism and a growing hipster monoculture have conspired to make even the most previously obscure regional delicacies available, if not everywhere, then at least far from their natural habitats. Hawaiian poke is no longer served solely on the Big Island; Detroit-style pizza has migrated well beyond Eight Mile Road. Nashville hot chicken, East Harlem chopped-cheese sandwiches — we could go on. Why not salmiakki?

But when I met Petri Tervonen, Fazer’s marketing director at the time, he smiled when I asked if the company had made any big push to export salty licorice outside Northern Europe. Salmiakki’s “taste profile,” he explained, was “much more intense” than the average consumer in a non-salty-licorice country was accustomed to. “So you have a natural kind of barrier.”

We were eating bowls of salmon soup in the cafeteria of a different Fazer facility near Helsinki, a building whose curved glass walls and blond wood ceiling made it look like a U.F.O. conceived by a team of Scandinavian designers. Tervonen had moved to Fazer eight years ago from another of Finland’s iconic brands, Nokia. He told me Fazer was planning to introduce a line of premium dark chocolate called Nordi in the United States next year and gave me a sneak preview of the bars. The sleek packaging nodded toward chic, aspirational Scandinavian lifestyle trends, featuring scenes of Nordic splendor: pristine mountain rivers, the candied glow of smoke from a cozy sauna. “Here, our brand awareness is 100 percent, but if you were to rank all confectioners worldwide, we’re probably No.40-something,” Tervonen said. “So we’re competing with giants. What is typical for the category as a whole is it’s an impulse decision. Not many people write down ‘Buy chocolate’ on their shopping list. So how do you get people to stop in front of what you’re selling, make them curious and then get them to try it?”

I kept pushing on salmiakki. Wouldn’t a shopper at Whole Foods at least be curious? Secretly, I pictured a series of alternate sleeves for a Nordi brand of premium salty licorice, scenes that might reflect the darker side of Scandinavian culture, thus preparing potential buyers for what they might be getting into. A black-metal band burning down a church? Max von Sydow playing chess with Death?

Tervonen said the trend forecasters they worked with in the States had tasted salty licorice in the past and found it “interesting,” which Tervonen pronounced in a way that did not sound promising. He shrugged. “Salty licorice is a taste that divides opinion, even here.” He said he had two sons: The 8-year-old loves salmiakki, but the 11-year-old can’t stand it.

The worst licorice I tasted during my epic night with the Salmiakkikonklaavi turned out to be a candied heart. I’d instinctively reached for one, the color (red as a raspberry) and shape tricking my brain into momentarily believing I’d selected something sweeter. It turned out to be the saltiest and most abrasive item on the menu, a flavor assault only heightened by the dissonance of the delivery mechanism.

A plastic twist-bag of those hearts has been sitting at the foot of my desk since I returned from Helsinki, buried within a larger grocery bag of salmiakki I’d hauled back to my apartment. Reijo Laine, the founder of Namitupa, the producer of the hearts, had recommended that I make a present of the candy to my wife. “She will be happy with you for six weeks,” he added, with a mysterious precision.

That had struck me as a poor idea. But back home, as I struggled to account for the appeal of salmiakki, I thought, again, about sisu. Was the defining Finnish attribute really as noble as Hudson Strode made it out to be? What if, in fact, it merely represented a national tendency toward masochism, some understandable but aberrant quality born of endless winter nights that wound up manifesting itself in a fanatical love of saunas and Turkish Peppers?

Yet I couldn’t shake my memory of the blissful expressions on the faces of the members of the Salmiakkikonklaavi. To pathologize such a love felt narrow-minded, unfair. So maybe the answer hinged on flipping the question. Forget about the salty-licorice countries for a moment: Why does salmiakki feel like such a category error to the rest of us? And was the answer to that question right in front of my face? Could one of the secrets to Finnish happiness simply come down to not always expecting hearts to be sweet?

Dumping the bag of licorice onto my desk, I began to dig around, pushing aside a Super Salmiakki lollipop, a packet of Dracula Piller (salmiakki with a creepy vampire mascot), a box of peppered salmiakkipellets (actually called Sisu!), before finally extracting what I was looking for. And what do you know? With the foreknowledge of what was coming, it didn’t taste all that bad. I mean, certainly no worse than any of the rest.

I resealed the bag of hearts and replaced them in the shopping bag. I haven’t touched any licorice since.

Mark Binelli is a contributing writer for the magazine and the author of “Detroit City Is the Place to Be.” He last wrote for the magazine about the Australian author Gerald Murnane.

 

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