In my early teens, I spent a couple of years in Jamestown, North Carolina. I thoroughly enjoyed the Southern cuisine and the manic sensation that it awakened, making me crave more and more until I could do nothing but lie comatose in fetal position. Grits, hushpuppies, cornbread, barbecued roadkill opossum—I loved them all.
American candy, however, didn't quite live up to my standards. It consists of either a bar based on chocolate or peanut butter, or something that leaves me with the taste of having been sprayed in the mouth with a cheap perfume made for teenage girls. It isn't bad, just uninspired.
Candy is a big deal in Sweden. For years the country has placed among the top consumers of sweets per capita in the world. The reason behind the gluttony is loose candy: a concept introduced in 1984, when the Swedish National Food Agency recommended the National Board of Health and Welfare to allow sugar-craving people to compose their own candy bags by freely picking and mixing from an assortment of items, as long as they were in separate bulk bins, and pay by the gram. The candy market exploded and sales skyrocketed. Consumption increased 50 percent over 20 years, and today the average Swede eats 35 to 40 pounds of candy and chocolate each year.
One of the most popular types of candy is salmiak, licorice flavored with ammonium chloride—a salty chemical compound resulting from the reaction between hydrochloric acid and ammonia. The salt is mixed with sugar, starch, wheat flour, and extracts from dried licorice root, and then heated to reach the desired consistency. It has anti-inflammatory and laxative properties. Overconsumption will not only make you shit yourself, but also raise your blood pressure, disturb your sodium balance, and cause edema.
When Swedish candy brand Malaco had its factories shut down in 2001, and its production outsourced to Denmark (now in Slovakia, Italy, and Holland), few producers were left in Sweden. Lars Pålsson's Scandi Candy began making licorice in 2004, but had broken into the candy market a few years earlier. Pålsson and his colleagues had predicted that a demand for gelatin-free candy was imminent with the mad cow disease scare in the UK. As more people asked for sweets without traces of farm animals, Scandi Candy was the only Swedish provider. They are now the only industrial licorice manufacturer left in the country, making salted licorice for six small, local brands, each with their own recipe.
The main hall at the Scandi Candy factory is infernally hot and draped in light yellow cornstarch. A majestic starch mogul machine occupies half the room and keeps the noise level high. The machine makes soft candies by stamping shapes into cornstarch-filled trays, and squirting goo (a mixture of sugar, cornstarch, glucose and fructose syrup, citric acid, and various flavorings and colorants) into the holes. When we visited the factory, the machine was busy pressing green bottle-shaped things, and couldn't be bothered with licorice.
Luckily, another smaller but equally loud apparatus in the adjacent room was all about the black, salty stuff. The worker feeding the machine was happy to show me how the black-brownish liquid went from a spinning barrel, through a tube, into another part where began resembling feces, then onward until the licorice mass was thick enough to be squeezed out in long, winding cables, and eventually cut into edible pieces.
As a teen, I thought salmiak was generally appreciated in the whole world. Realizing that none was to be found in North America, I attempted to enlighten my American classmates. To lead them away from the dry, sticky sadness of Snickers, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and Skittles, I brought Djungelvrål to my 8th grade Language Arts class. The initial skepticism was overcome when the other Swede at the school gladly downed a handful of salt-covered licorice apes. But my good intentions backfired badly once the kids acknowledged the taste. A choir of fierce hissing filled the room, accompanied by aggressive snarls and foul grimacing. They eyed me like I was some kind of gastronomical hillbilly; a weird culinary misfit, relegated to the outer rims of society, where no one could be bothered by my passion for sucking on salty monkeys.
Most Americans haven't acquired the taste for salmiak, and neither has anybody else. The societies that have cultivated an appreciation for it are limited to the Nordic countries, the Netherlands, and Northern Germany—and it doesn't seem to spread. "This is perhaps the biggest mystery of salty liquorice," wrote Jukka Annala, chairman of The Finnish Salty Liquorice Association. "I have interviewed many kinds of experts, but haven't found a good explanation to it. If you find a reliable answer, I will buy you a nice bottle of Finnish salmiakki vodka."
When not even IKEA—masters at marketing affordable Swedish crap—can break new ground for salmiak, we might have to concede to the duality of the matter: even though it is delicious, salty licorice is also some really nasty shit.