For as long as I can remember, I have appreciated almost all flavors. Everything was good, in the right context. Sweet, sour, bitter, salty, or savory (AKA umami), it was all good. Everything but licorice. Licorice and its allies were, to me, horrid. I hated anything remotely related to licorice, I thought. That held true until I reached my fifties.

My wife, on the other hand, has always liked licorice. Her enjoyment of the flavor ultimately persuaded me to give licorice a try after a lifetime of avoidance. I remember how it happened. We visited a little Scandinavian store called The Wooden Spoon in Plano, Texas, where my wife bought some salty Dutch licorice treats. After we returned home, for some reason I decided to try one, despite knowing full well how much I loathed the flavor of licorice. To my astonishment, the flavor I had long regarded as impossibly nasty had transformed into something delightful.

Since that gustatory epiphany, I have enjoyed licorice flavoring in all manner of things, both food and drink. I discovered the flavor of licorice in anise, star anise, fennel, and tarragon, as well as licorice. I learned that the licorice plant (I looked it up this morning; it’s called glycyrrhiza glabra) is biologically unrelated to its similarly flavored cousins anise, fennel, or tarragon. I also learned that some people detect distinct similarities between the flavor of licorice and the flavors of some basil and caraway seeds, both of which I like but neither of which taste like licorice to me.

As I reflect on half a lifetime of deprivation from enjoying licorice, I realize I unwittingly fooled myself along the way by divorcing the flavors in various foods my wife prepared from the flavor I knew to be licorice. She used anise and fennel in cooking, on occasion, and never did I react in horror to the stuff she was putting in the food she served me.

The more I contemplate this oddity, the greater is my certainty that my loathing of licorice stems from my experience as a Halloween-candy-beggar, being given candies purported to be licorice. I recall black and red strings of horrid stuff I found in my bag after returning home from nights of beseeching strangers for sweet foodstuff. I tasted the strings and promptly threw them away, realizing that some of those strangers were bad people, people who attempted to murder innocent children by feeding them sticky black and red strings of poison disguised as candy. Now, these many years later, I think the stuff I thought was licorice was something else; its flavor may have been similar to what I know licorice to be, but it wasn’t the same. It was nasty, inedible stuff, the kind of thing one would give to bad children in the hope that they will leave and never return.

Pastis, absinthe, annisett, herbsaint, and sambuca are among the liquors/liqueurs with licorice flavoring. While I am not addicted to any of them, I like their flavor now, in reasonably small doses. Another licorice-flavored liqueur that’s quite common is Galliano, an Italian brand-name product (that, according to one source, comes in a bottle that is one inch taller than your liquor cabinet).

In the coming weeks, I intend to use licorice flavorings in foods I cook. I will work with different herbs in an attempt to distinguish differences in the flavors of anise, fennel, star anise, tarragon, etc.; I’ll even try to detect licorice flavors in basil and caraway seeds. And I’ll try to get my hands on some licorice root, though I’m not sure of the likelihood of success in that endeavor.  I may write about my adventures in licorice. I may not. Time will tell.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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