Gambrels of the Sky

A Frighteningly Long Post on Candy

Halloween crept up on me again this year. Once again, I missed the deadline for costume readiness. Or I would have, anyway, except Halloween is not really a Dutch thing, except a little bit in Amsterdam, where expat traditions have bled into the social conventions.

Did anyone notice that every sentence in the previous paragraph contained a creepy idiom?! Okay, sorry, I’ll stop. It’s just that I’m feeling a bit batty because I’m writing this post in the dead of night.

Okay, okay!

But, seriously, things have taken a dark turn here. Literally. Daylight Savings was last weekend—a week earlier than in the U.S.—so the sun now sets by 5:00 or so. Dave’s weekly ultimate frisbee game has been moved from Thursday evenings to Sunday afternoons for winter hours. We’ve almost arrived at the doldrums of November, which ranks second only to February in my hierarchy of depressing months.

We’ve also been quite busy lately, hence the radio silence on this blog. I officially passed “Dutch Intensive Level Een” after some serious studying and am now enjoying a short break (during which I forget everything I learned) before starting “Level Twee.” Dave began working full time last week. We’re moving to a new apartment this weekend. My mom was here recently for a lovely visit. And on and on.

But now I have a couple of days of vacation. Thus, in honor of Halloween, I thought it was the perfect time to conduct an extensive, highly scientific study of one important element of Dutch culture: candy! More specifically, licorice, aka Dutch “dropje.”

Licorice is, of course, not unique to the Netherlands. I consider myself a highly (maybe embarrassingly is the right word) experienced candy eater, and I have always enjoyed black licorice flavored treats. Jelly beans, Good ‘n Plenty, even that Panda brand of licorice they sell at Trader Joe’s. Bring it on. I was not prepared, however, for the Dutch love of licorice. Young and old, they’re mad for this stuff. The average Dutch person eats about five pounds of licorice per year. I think other northern European countries have a similar affinity, though I don’t have much firsthand experience.

The Dutch have several words for candy: Snoep, Suikergoed, Kandij, Zoetigheid. But the licorice “dropje” is not just any old candy. It is apparently thought by some to be good for one’s health and is sometimes eaten as a throat lozenge. There are claims that a daily dropje can improve one’s vocal quality, and parents give the candies to children as a semi-health food. Actually, the licorice plant is known to have some anti-inflammatory properties. On the other hand, real licorice (which most of the American stuff is not, I’ve learned) also contains a substance called glycyrrhizin, which can raise one’s blood pressure in addition to several other nasty side effects. All told, I wouldn’t rely on it as a health aid.

But beyond all that, dropje is an important cultural touchstone—one that most outsiders do not find particularly delicious. I’m not the first expat to write about this particular Dutchism. You can even view some entertaining videos of people trying dropje here, and here, and here. Consensus from these videos? Dutch licorice is terrible stuff.

But I am an indiscriminate candy lover. An old friend used to accuse me of preferring “peasant candy,” and he was right. If nobody is watching, I’ll choose the off-brand Skittles over the expensive Belgian chocolates most of the time. I love candy that most adults wouldn’t touch. Dum Dums? Absolutely. Necco Wafers? Sure! Bit-o-Honey? Don’t mind if I do. When I was a kid, I used to climb the pantry shelves to stuff my pockets with the cinnamon red hots my mom kept for baking. You might think the insides of my pants would get stained sticky red when the candies melted, but they were never in my pockets for that long.

So when I saw a candy universally derided on YouTube, it just seemed like a challenge. Without further ado, I present: The Official One-Person Dutch Dropje Taste Test!

To begin, I went to my local Jamin candy store. Jamin is a chain of sweet shops scattered around the city. It was a busy Saturday afternoon, but I fought the crowds and endured a few odd looks while I painstakingly spooned a single piece of candy from every bin I thought contained licorice into my bag. Here are a few pictures of the licorice selection in the store to give you an idea of the scope of this undertaking.

After I paid nearly €9 for my haul (in the name of science), I took it all home and sorted the candy by type. I classified it into four main groups. First, the sugar-coated licorice. Second, the candies that blend licorice with something else—mint, fruit gummy, coconut, etc. Both of these categories seemed pretty safe. Then there were the wrapped candies, some of which I later deduced were not licorice at all. Finally, there were the various shapes and sizes of unwrapped licorice. This was the biggest category and also the most mysterious. I didn’t have any knowledge about how any of these would taste prior to the experiment.

Here is all entire lot of it.

Seeing as I’m already at about a thousand words, I’ll just breeze through the rest of the methodology section. Basically, it was me eating the candy over the course of a few days. Of course, I first ate the most appealing ones and then, as the pile dwindled, I tried some of the sketchier specimens. Here are my results:

1) Licorice coated in crunchy sugar is superb. There was a range of textures in my study, from chewy to get-stuck-in-your-teeth, and they were all great.

2) Every kind of licorice containing a color in addition to black is delicious. I really loved the coconut/licorice blend, even though they were so sweet a single piece made my teeth ache. Also, every fruit flavor goes with licorice. I’m less a fan of the mint/licorice combo, but it’ll do in a pinch. If you ever find yourself faced with a tube of licorice filled with some kind of pastel goo, definitely eat it.

3) Wrapped licorice products are also generally a good bet. There is one exception to this (see below).

4) For unwrapped licorice, the best tactic is to eat the most childish shapes first. Smiley cat face, yes. Heart, yup. These incantations tend to be sweet and mild. After you have depleted such shapes, proceed with caution to the coins, diamonds, and blob shapes. These are usually strong and less sweet, but still quite good. But, but! Unless you are Dutch, only take a small nibble of anything marked Zout (Salt), DZ, or Salmiak.

Let me repeat: Proceed with extreme caution on any Dutch licorice that touts its saltiness.

Actually, I like the basic salty licorice, the kind with regular old sodium chloride. I find it little weird, certainly salty, but strangely addictive. (Dave, on the other hand, hated it and, after trying some, repeatedly wiped his tongue on his sleeve for about 20 minutes.) But the “Dubbel Zout” and the “Salmiakki” varieties contain ammonium chloride, which is a substance NO ONE SHOULD EVER EAT. If the stuff you use to clean your toilet were to turn rancid, it would taste just like salmiakki. To quote Wikipedia, ammonium cholride “is commonly formed on burning coal dumps, due to condensation of coal-derived gases.” Really, Dutch people? Burning coal dumps? This candy is terrible, and that’s final.

Ammonium chloride is also hidden in “candy” that doesn’t even look like licorice. Before I had ever heard of this substance, I happily bit into a brownish lollipop given to me with my restaurant bill. For maybe the first time in history, I spit my candy on the sidewalk. It was a filled with what I now know was acrid powdered ammonium chloride. At the time, I actually thought the waiter might be playing a practical joke. Or trying to poison me. I had Dave watch me carefully for a while afterward to be sure I didn’t collapse. One of the hard, wrapped candies in my study looked suspiciously like this sucker, and I couldn’t bring myself to eat it.

It is, then, with a heavy heart that I am forced to acknowledge the conclusions of my study. Some Dutch dropje is good, but some is, in fact, disgusting. I am neither tougher nor more worldly than those poor saps in the YouTube videos. There is a candy variety I don’t like, and—with any luck—salmiakki will never touch my tongue again. If this means I am not Dutch at heart, so be it.

Happy Halloween!

And finally, here are a few pictures from the last few weeks. First are a couple of shots of my mom and me on our tourist escapades.

Here is Dave at his new ultimate frisbee location in the “Museumplein” in the center of town.