If You Don’t Like Black Licorice, You Probably Just Haven’t Had the Good Stuff
Say hello to Iceland’s savory, sweet and addictively rich take on the candy.
A few weeks ago, I knew black licorice simply as the worst Jelly Belly flavor. Then I traveled to Iceland, where at least 75% of all candy features the polarizing ingredient. As it turns out, I just hadn’t tried the good stuff — savory, sweet and addictively rich. A salty treat beloved by Nordic countries, Iceland takes their black licorice game up a notch, serving it in a number of creative ways including, most famously, with chocolate.
“A long-standing Icelandic tradition is to combine milk chocolate with black licorice,” says Ingi Þorarinn Fridriksson, Director of Food & Beverage at the celebrated Blue Lagoon Iceland. “It’s a favorite candy bar for an everyday treat and for candy-filled holidays. The combination of black licorice and chocolate works so well because it combines a sweet and salty flavor profile.”
How did this black licorice obsession take hold in the first place? Iceland’s topography is so volcanic, rocky, and well, icy, not much can thrive there. Licorice breaks the mold, however, because the plant it comes from — Glycyrrhiza glabra — grows edible roots. Shipping in candy from other countries turned out not to be an option, either. Throughout much of the 20th century, imports were restricted due to war, health scares and economic turmoil, creating something of a black (licorice) hole. During the most recent ban, enacted due to a debunked 1972 study on Red Dye No. 2, a type of coloring found in some candy, Iceland’s largest supermarket chain incurred a fine for selling 20,000 bags of M&M’s illegally. It wasn’t until 1998 that foreign candy was finally allowed back in the country. But at this point, habits and tastes might be hard to change — and Iceland has built a thriving sweets culture all its own.
Today, it’s not unusual to see chocolate-covered licorice gummies, ice cream topped with licorice, cake drizzled in licorice sauce and more. Spend a few days in Iceland and soon enough you’ll realize that black licorice has a sneaky, though not unwelcome, habit of slipping into just about everything — even salt. According to Fridriksson, there’s no unpopular way to eat licorice in Iceland. “We’ll even take a black licorice straw and drink our Coca-Cola out of it!”
While dining at the Michelin-recognized Moss Restaurant, I discovered subtle bites of black licorice sitting next to a rich Valrhona chocolate mousse and Gariguette strawberries, proving that the classic also has a place in gourmet cooking. “At Blue Lagoon, we’re always looking for ways to modernize Icelandic dishes,” says Fridriksson. “For this particular dessert, the sweetness from the strawberries complements the saltiness of the black licorice in a way that really surprises our guests — especially the ones who swear they do not like black licorice.”
Eager to try some Icelandic black licorice at home? Fridriksson suggests sticking with something more familiar first. “For those on the fence about black licorice or have never tried it, it’s all about the flavor combination,” he says. “I recommend choosing a milk chocolate candy bar with licorice pieces mixed in.” Here, some of the best Icelandic black licorice treats, for beginners and licorice obsessives alike.