In January 1940, within the pages of this very journal, a author by the superb identify of Hudson Strode printed an article with the headline “Sisu: A Phrase That Explains Finland.” A Finnish idea that’s tough to translate into English with any actual precision, sisu represents one thing like a deep nicely of internal fortitude. The Wikipedia entry contains hyperlinks to “stiff higher lip,” “cojones” and “chutzpah,” however none of these phrases or phrases fairly seize it. A “particular sort of robust will” is the definition Strode goes with, one thing drawn upon by the stoic with the intention to persevere within the face of maximum adversity — say, winter, if you happen to reside in Lapland.
At one level within the article, Strode visits a Finnish city close to the Russian border and meets the native sheriff. For sentimental causes, this sheriff carries round a dagger, which he palms to Strode. Apparently a earlier proprietor used the blade to fend off six attackers. “They fought for an hour,” the sheriff says. “He lower the six to items. I noticed the end of the combat — it was an excellent show of sisu.” Strode doesn’t file his personal response, however he appears impressed. The sheriff slips the knife again into its leather-based holster and gazes to the east. “We will have want of sisu,” he observes gravely, “to face what could come shortly.”
Studying about Strode’s journey — which took him to Finland at the beginning of World Warfare II, solely months earlier than the Soviet invasion — I considered my very own quickly approaching journey to the identical nation, for a similar journal, 79 years later. I smiled on the pleasing symmetry. Granted, my surname doesn’t double as an energetic verb, not even in Italian. Additionally, I used to be going to Finland to report an article on salty licorice. However in any other case, our duties weren’t dissimilar. Strode had launched his readers to a phrase that defined a distant nation and its underlying values. I’d attempt to do the identical, solely with a extremely bizarre taste of sweet.
There could be want of sisu to face what would possibly come shortly.
All through a lot of the world, licorice stays one in all humanity’s most divisive confections. Hervé This, one of many meals scientists who coined the time period “molecular gastronomy,” likes to make use of licorice to assault the notion that people possess 4 primary tastes. You would possibly reflexively consider licorice as candy, nevertheless it’s not, actually, neither is it salty, bitter or bitter. (Or umami, for that matter, This provides.) The confounding nature of licorice’s taste has given rise to a pointy partisanship. Licorice sweet has been in contrast, astutely, to the Grateful Lifeless, by none aside from the Grateful Lifeless singer Jerry Garcia, who allowed in an interview: “Our viewers is like individuals who like licorice. Not everyone likes licorice, however the individuals who like licorice actually like licorice.”
To increase Garcia’s simile, albeit imperfectly, that will make salty licorice — salmiakki in Finland, the place they devour essentially the most potent flavors — the sweet equal of a 47-minute model of “Darkish Star.” Which means, for superfans solely.
With salmiakki, that fan base is clustered virtually fully in Northern Europe, in what Jukka Annala, the writer of a guide on salmiakki and the founder and president of the Finnish Salty Licorice Affiliation, refers to because the seven “salty-licorice international locations”: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, the Netherlands and Germany (in its north). I ought to clarify right here that if you happen to learn “salty licorice” and assume, “Nicely, I get pleasure from a sea-salt chocolate-chip cookie; how unhealthy may these items be?” the salt utilized in salmiakki isn’t sea salt and even iodized desk salt however ammonium chloride — sal ammoniacum in Latin, salmiac in English — an astringent, extraordinarily bitter chemical compound fashioned, like all salts, by mixing a base and an acid, which within the case of salmiac are ammonia and both hydrochloric acid or hydrogen chloride.
At this level, you would possibly surprise, “How is that this completely different from the deeply disagreeable bitter candies my very own beloved youngsters torture themselves with?” The factor is, in salty-licorice international locations, salmiakki isn’t some area of interest product marketed solely at children. It’s a decent deal with possibility for all ages and demographics. Actually, some packages are marked “not licorice for youngsters.” In Helsinki, I scouted a minimum of a dozen comfort shops and groceries, and each sweet part therein contained a minimum of one full show rack, typically a number of, devoted solely to salmiakki. Sure manufacturers packaged themselves like breath mints, in fashionable cardboard packs, to attraction on to adults. Your traditional Finnish salmiakki comes within the form of a black diamond, however you too can discover salty-licorice dragster wheels, pirate cash, cattle, “witch whistles” (which look extra like grey cigarette butts), pacifiers, pastilles, skulls, hockey pucks, octopi, lengthy flat strips resembling squid-ink fettuccine and, in fact, conventional Swedish fish.
Amid the set of country-themed emoji launched by Finland’s Ministry of International Affairs in late 2015, there’s one for salmiakki — an ecstatic girl clutching a pair of black diamonds — described on the English-language web site as “one thing Finns can’t reside with out.” “It’s type of the nationwide sweet,” Annala informed me. Which is saying one thing, as a result of tiny Finland tends to punch far above its weight in the case of sweet appetites over all. A 2017 examine by the London-based market-research agency Euromonitor Worldwide ranked the nation fifth worldwide in per capita sweet consumption. Three different salty-licorice international locations, Sweden, the Netherlands and Norway, positioned third, ninth and tenth. (The USA didn’t even crack the High 10.)
Right here’s one other fascinating statistic: Finland simply scored the highest spot on the 2018 World Happiness Report. It’s produced by a United Nations initiative based mostly on world polling knowledge from Gallup, and you can also make of the methodology what you’ll, however Finns reported themselves happier than another nationality on earth, and so they had been adopted on the record by three Nordic neighbors: Norway, Denmark and Iceland. Individuals, in the meantime, got here in at a dismal 18th. Correlation doesn’t imply causation, however come on, that is completely causation, proper? All these salty-licorice international locations clustered on the very high? Possibly it’s not so loopy to consider reported nationwide happiness in relationship to one thing like a favourite nationwide sweet, as a result of what’s sweet, in any case, if not an elemental signifier of happiness and in addition one thing terribly culturally particular and wrapped up in nostalgia and childhood reminiscences and, by proxy, nationwide identification?
So when contemplating the romanticized notion of Scandinavia that’s taken maintain of the non-Nordic creativeness lately — a land of a cheerful citizenry, of beneficiant social-welfare applications and prisons nicer than our colleges and colleges nicer than even that, a land of hygge and Noma and Björk — may inspecting their love of salty licorice be one small however essential technique of unlocking a secret to dwelling that the remainder of us, notably these of us all the way in which down at No.18, gorging ourselves on king-size Snickers bars like overgrown youngsters unable to deal with sophisticated flavors, haven’t found out?
Annala had provided to rearrange a salty-licorice tasting for me in Helsinki, in addition to convene a gathering of the F.S.L.A.’s Salmiakkikonklaavi (Salmiakki Conclave), the ruling physique that awards a Salty Licorice of the 12 months honor on the group’s spring gala. The primary gala passed off in 1998, shortly after the founding of the F.S.L.A., whose membership numbers about 80. One yr, Annala informed me, “some individuals misunderstood that the phrase ‘gala’ was an ironic factor and got here in robes.”
I used to be grateful for Annala’s supply. Although it’s not particularly common in America, I occur to get pleasure from black licorice, or a minimum of I used to as a boy, when it got here within the shoestring-length “whips” extra widespread again then. (These had the added bonus of actually stinging if you happen to managed to snap, say, a youthful brother’s arm or cheek simply so. What can I say? “Indiana Jones” had simply come out. We dug whips.) By Nordic requirements, nevertheless, my licorice palate lacked sophistication. In the USA, our favourite licorice snack, far and away, stays the crimson center finger that’s the purple Twizzler, which is technically not even licorice — these Twizzlers are strawberry-flavored, not licorice-flavored, include no licorice extract and supply all of the masticatory pleasures of an edible candle — and which I’d think about for licorice purists is akin to stuffing a loaf of Marvel Bread right into a poster tube and calling what comes out the opposite finish a baguette.
Annala, diplomatically, made no point out of Twizzlers once we met for lunch at one in all Helsinki’s most venerable eating places, the Ravintola Sea Horse, which has been round because the Nineteen Thirties and remains to be a hang-out of artists and cultural figures. The home specialty, fried Baltic herring, comes stacked like kindling on an oversize plate. Annala greeted me from a sales space. In picturing him, a middle-aged skilled obsessed sufficient together with his favourite sweet to start out a fan membership, I anticipated some mixture of zany and plump, however 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 vitality: He was simply recovering from the flu. By day, Annala works as an editor on the Finnish Information Company S.T.T., the principle wire service in Finland. “Salmiakki,” his good-looking and lavishly researched coffee-table guide, was printed in 2001.
Within the guide, Annala traces the origins of salty licorice to early-Twentieth-century pharmacies, when chemists in Finland and elements of Scandinavia started promoting salmiakki as a cough medication. (Ammonium chloride acts as an expectorant, which provides credence to the generally cited principle that the individuals in sure colder climates had been initially drawn to salty licorice for well being causes.) The salmiakki most frequently got here in powdered type in little envelopes, although syrups and diamond-shaped lozenges had been additionally accessible. Salmiakki, like conventional licorice, is constructed from licorice root, which is combined with wheat flour and was a paste that’s typically dyed black. (The pure shade of licorice-root extract is nearer to the ocher shade of powdered salmiakki.) Extra flavors might be added to the paste — ammonium chloride within the case of salmiakki, but in addition anise, toffee, menthol — earlier than it’s molded into sweet shapes.
Even earlier than the addition of ammonium chloride, licorice root had been used as a respiratory and digestive help for millenniums. It turns up within the “Charaka-Samhita,” an historic Hindu medical textual content, and in Theophrastus’ “Enquiry Into Crops.” And a minimum of in response to citations within the Oxford English Dictionary, “lycuresse” is each “good for the voyce” and “doth unfastened fleume.” (The O.E.D. additionally quotes the English author R.D. Blackmore’s 1869 novel “Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor:” “I cough typically within the winter-weather, and father provides me lickerish.”) Someday round 1760, an English apothecary named George Dunhill receives credit score for being the primary so as to add sugar to the licorice lozenges he bought at his store, within the Yorkshire city of Pontefract, cementing the natural medication’s off-label use as a candy. So-called Pontefract Truffles are nonetheless bought in the UK, although now they’re manufactured by the German sweet large Haribo.
After our meal, Annala unzipped his backpack and eliminated a jar of salty licorice produced by one in all his favourite salmiakki producers, Namitupa, a small-batch label out of Ilmajoki, a city in southwestern Finland. The licorice was in powdered type, within the previous pharmacy type, which Annala adored. The F.S.L.A. named it Salmiakki of the 12 months for 2012. Annala unscrewed the lid, instructed me to carry out my hand and tapped a modest pile into the middle of my palm. “It’s a bit messy, however that is the normal technique to do it,” Annala defined. Then he shrugged, apologetic. “Not so hygienic. Not so aesthetic.”
I glanced round anxiously, feeling as if we must always have perhaps skulked off to a rest room stall earlier than entering into this a part of the interview. The powder was extraordinarily wonderful and regarded like floor cumin. I’ll notice that earlier than my investigations into salmiakki, I had by no means tasted it, and my unique plan had been to satisfy Annala in a virginal state. However then a good friend heard in regards to the article and ended up bringing some Dutch salty licorice — a present from a Scandinavian ex-girlfriend — to a bar one afternoon, so I broke down and tried it. Having seen a collection of YouTube movies involving non-salty-licorice-country youngsters being tricked into consuming salty licorice, I’ve to confess: I anticipated worse. The Dutch sweet, a coin-size black disc, had a gentle saltiness that canceled out the licorice taste, however simply barely, leaving me feeling as if I had been gnawing on a savory leather-based button. So, not my first selection of issues to place in my mouth, positive, but in addition not the makings of “Jackass”-style response movies.
“That is completely different,” Annala assured me. “That is actual Finnish salmiakki. Fairly robust stuff.” Heaping a few of the powder into his personal palm, he mentioned, “Now you lick it.”
Had I anticipated issues to proceed extra within the vogue of a genteel tasting at a Lexington whiskey distillery and fewer like, say, a scene from a William S. Burroughs novel by which the characters ingest bizarre, made-up medicine? Sure, I had.
Anyway. I licked it. The salmiakki tasted as if somebody had made a bouillon dice out of a briny licorice inventory, then crushed it right into a powder. My tongue instantly tingled. After my expertise with the underwhelming Dutch licorice, I hadn’t been ready for the way — what’s the tasting notice I’m searching for? — ammonium-chloride-forward Finnish salmiakki could be. It was pungent, in a saltier-than-salt method that introduced some warmth. The licorice had an aggressive presence as nicely, which could sound like a very good factor, a possible stability, nevertheless it appeared solely to accentuate the curdled chemical aftertaste, some mixture of weight-reduction plan cola, fennel toothpaste and MSG that a number of sips of water wouldn’t flush.
Throughout the desk, Annala appeared misplaced in a reverie. “Mmm,” he murmured, closing his eyes for a second, as if to close out all senses however style. “So scrumptious.”
Over the course of the following seven hours, at a number of places, we consumed a substantial, maybe unhealthful, quantity of salmiakki. I tasted brittle black tokens robust sufficient to make my eyes water. Annala fortunately crunched a number of without delay, as if he’d simply plucked his favourite bits from a sack of path combine, saying, “It’s like consuming iron!” We drank pictures of salty-licorice vodka, a preferred spirit all through Scandinavia. (In “The Nordic Cookbook” the Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson, whose restaurant Faviken Magasinet is an internationally lauded purveyor of New Nordic delicacies, writes about teenage buddies making bootleg variations of the stuff by packing salty licorice right into a three-quarter-filled bottle of vodka and working it by way of the dishwasher.)
We met two members of the Salmiakkikonklaavi, Juha Hellsten and Kaija Collin, at a bar with purple carpeting and white plastic-laminate bistro tables that felt like somebody’s thought of the longer term in 1967. Annala positioned a combined bag of unfastened salmiakki within the middle of the desk and tore down its sides so that they regarded just like the petals of a large flower, the pile of licorice now a teeming black bulb. Selecting a subtly flavored Swedish fish, Annala twisted it between his fingers, then took a chunk and nodded approvingly. “It’s gentle, however has simply sufficient salty licorice to make it acceptable. And the construction is superb and playful.”
Hellsten, who works in administration on the telecommunications firm Ericsson and has been identified to partially fill a suitcase with salmiakki when touring to non-salty-licorice international locations, agreed: “It’s not a high scorer. However a dependable defender on the crew.” Annala mentioned one factor he liked about salmiakki was the “drama of the sweet,” by which he meant that the flavour advanced as you skilled it, like completely different acts of a play. “Generally there’s a shock impact on the floor, then it’s candy inside,” he defined. “What’s taking place modifications from the primary to the center to the top to the aftermath.”
Collin, who works at her household’s asbestos-removal firm, bit right into a black alligator with a white stomach and frowned. “This isn’t salmiakki,” she mentioned.
Annala tried one and decided that the stomach was, in actual fact, marshmallow. “It’s a criminal offense to name this salty licorice!” he mentioned, throwing down the sweet in disgust.
Collin handed me a black lump and mentioned: “Now I would like you to do that one. Nobody else does it. Tar sweet!”
It was a Tervapiru (“Tar Satan”), and it did, certainly, scent like a black-market cigarette with the filter torn off. I felt as if it additionally tasted strongly of tar, although I can’t say for positive, not having knowingly tasted tar earlier than. (Finns add tar, derived of their nation from wooden fairly than coal, to varied meals as a smoky flavoring agent.)
“I bear in mind tasting pure ammonium chloride,” Hellsten mentioned. He had pushed up the sleeves of his cardigan and was rooting round within the licorice pile.
“Did you prefer it?” Annala requested.
“ ‘Like’ is maybe not the precise phrase,” Hellsten mentioned.
At a sure level, I hit a wall. When somebody shook a few robust salmiakki mints into my hand, I popped solely one in all them, palming the second and slipping it into my shoe whereas pretending to scratch my ankle.
Somebody introduced up a 2012 transfer by the European Union to sharply curb the allowable per-gram quantity of ammonium chloride in meals, which might have successfully banned salmiakki and probably triggered a Finnexit. A Finnish E.U. bureaucrat helped intervene ultimately, and sweet was exempted from the rule. Annala invited the bureaucrat to the F.S.L.A. gala, however she by no means responded.
Fazer is the unofficial sweet model of Finland, the nationwide equal of Hershey or Cadbury. Its founder, Karl Fazer, was born in Helsinki in 1866, one yr after Jean Sibelius. His father, a Swiss immigrant, labored as a furrier, however Karl, the youngest son of eight youngsters, at all times liked baking together with his mom, and after an apprenticeship in St. Petersburg, he opened a French-Russian confectionery store in Helsinki in 1891. By 1922, Fazer had begun mass-producing the milk-chocolate bars upon which he would construct his fortune, their patriotic “Fazer Blue” wrappers a nod to the cross on the Finnish flag. (The nation achieved independence from Russia 5 years earlier.) The corporate stays within the palms of the Fazer household, with 15,000 workers worldwide. Among the merchandise launched in Karl’s day are nonetheless in the marketplace, together with Mignons, handmade Easter delicacies that require deyolking precise eggs, then refilling the intact shells with hazelnut chocolate.
Fazer can be the most important producer of licorice within the nation. In 1927, the corporate purchased a British-Finnish biscuit-and-licorice firm and launched its signature line of candy licorice the next yr. The wrapper design featured a racist “golliwog” caricature, the British equal of a Sambo doll, which, depressingly, was not unusual in itself — you will discover historic examples of noxious sweet packaging all through the world — however which Fazer did not jettison till 2007, partially below stress from the European Union. (Why the corporate took so lengthy to behave is a “good and arduous query,” a Fazer spokeswoman, Liisa Eerola, informed me in an electronic mail. “Culturally, Finland was fairly remoted for a very long time. … Wanting again, it’s simple to say that we moved far too late.”) Fazer has been making salmiakki since 1938, and its portfolio of salty choices now contains merchandise like Tremendous Salmiakki, Pantteri (“Panther”) and Tyrkisk Peber (“Turkish Pepper”), so spicy that it’s ranked like sizzling sauce, with a flaming-star ranking system.
All these treats are made on the Fazer complicated in Lappeenranta, two hours from Helsinki by prepare and about 16 miles from the Russian border. The manufacturing facility is a century-old redbrick constructing with a collection of contemporary additions, constructed alongside the shore of the most important lake in Finland. It has 300 workers and runs three to 5 shifts, relying on the sweet wants of the closest vacation. In 2017, the manufacturing facility produced 19,200 tons of sweet: Mariannes (white peppermint pearls with chocolate facilities), Tutti Fruttis (variously flavored gummies), Avecs (petite “French”-style pastilles), Amerikans (a lot bigger “American”-style pastilles, which my tour information loved teasing me about) and all method of salmiakki. Fifteen % of Lappeenranta’s output is salty licorice, translating to roughly 3,000 tons of the stuff final yr.
The manufacturing facility was very a lot a typical manufacturing facility in sure methods (huge, noisy) and extra particularly a sweet manufacturing facility in others (my footwear caught to the flooring from the sugar, and there was a pleasing, lingering odor of fruit roughly wherever I went). As totally automated as any automotive plant I’d visited in Detroit, the place felt, as these factories did, like each a rare human achievement and an allegory for human redundancy within the type of a mechanical tableau vivant. Stamping presses pounded sweet shapes into sheets of starch powder; licorice or sugary fillings had been squirted into molds; robotic arms hoisted trays onto drying racks. In a single room, a lone human worker manually plucked misshapen candies from a conveyor belt, tossing them right into a plastic hopper at his ft. I discovered myself hoping the belt would by chance velocity up and drive him to start gobbling sweet, Lucy-and-Ethel-style. However apparently there’s an optical scanner additionally checking the sweet shapes, and if something goes improper, an alarm will sound.
Because the tour continued, I couldn’t assist questioning how future worldwide demand would possibly have an effect on the ability. In any case, we’re dwelling in a time when trendy omnivorism and a rising hipster monoculture have conspired to make even essentially the most beforehand obscure regional delicacies accessible, if not all over the place, then a minimum of removed from their pure habitats. Hawaiian poke is not served solely on the Massive Island; Detroit-style pizza has migrated nicely past Eight Mile Street. Nashville sizzling hen, East Harlem chopped-cheese sandwiches — we may go on. Why not salmiakki?
However after I met Petri Tervonen, Fazer’s advertising and marketing director on the time, he smiled after I requested if the corporate had made any huge push to export salty licorice exterior Northern Europe. Salmiakki’s “style profile,” he defined, was “far more intense” than the common client in a non-salty-licorice nation was accustomed to. “So you could have a pure sort of barrier.”
We had been consuming bowls of salmon soup within the cafeteria of a distinct Fazer facility close to Helsinki, a constructing whose curved glass partitions and blond wooden ceiling made it appear like a U.F.O. conceived by a crew of Scandinavian designers. Tervonen had moved to Fazer eight years in the past from one other of Finland’s iconic manufacturers, Nokia. He informed me Fazer was planning to introduce a line of premium darkish chocolate known as Nordi in the USA subsequent yr and gave me a sneak preview of the bars. The modern packaging nodded towards stylish, aspirational Scandinavian life-style traits, that includes scenes of Nordic splendor: pristine mountain rivers, the candied glow of smoke from a comfortable sauna. “Right here, our model consciousness is one hundred pc, however if you happen to had been to rank all confectioners worldwide, we’re in all probability No.40-something,” Tervonen mentioned. “So we’re competing with giants. What’s typical for the class as an entire is it’s an impulse resolution. Not many individuals write down ‘Purchase chocolate’ on their purchasing record. So how do you get individuals to cease in entrance of what you’re promoting, make them curious after which get them to strive it?”
I saved pushing on salmiakki. Wouldn’t a consumer at Complete Meals a minimum of be curious? Secretly, I pictured a collection of alternate sleeves for a Nordi model of premium salty licorice, scenes that may replicate the darker aspect of Scandinavian tradition, thus making ready potential consumers for what they may be entering into. A black-metal band burning down a church? Max von Sydow enjoying chess with Demise?
Tervonen mentioned the pattern forecasters they labored with within the States had tasted salty licorice up to now and located it “fascinating,” which Tervonen pronounced in a method that didn’t sound promising. He shrugged. “Salty licorice is a style that divides opinion, even right here.” He mentioned he had two sons: The 8-year-old loves salmiakki, however the 11-year-old can’t stand it.
The worst licorice I tasted throughout my epic evening with the Salmiakkikonklaavi turned out to be a candied coronary heart. I’d instinctively reached for one, the colour (purple as a raspberry) and form tricking my mind into momentarily believing I’d chosen one thing sweeter. It turned out to be the saltiest and most abrasive merchandise on the menu, a taste assault solely heightened by the dissonance of the supply mechanism.
A plastic twist-bag of these hearts has been sitting on the foot of my desk since I returned from Helsinki, buried inside a bigger grocery bag of salmiakki I’d hauled again to my condo. Reijo Laine, the founding father of Namitupa, the producer of the hearts, had really helpful that I make a gift of the sweet to my spouse. “She will probably be pleased with you for six weeks,” he added, with a mysterious precision.
That had struck me as a poor thought. However again dwelling, as I struggled to account for the attraction of salmiakki, I believed, once more, about sisu. Was the defining Finnish attribute actually as noble as Hudson Strode made it out to be? What if, in actual fact, it merely represented a nationwide tendency towards masochism, some comprehensible however aberrant high quality born of countless winter nights that wound up manifesting itself in a fanatical love of saunas and Turkish Peppers?
But I couldn’t shake my reminiscence of the blissful expressions on the faces of the members of the Salmiakkikonklaavi. To pathologize such a love felt narrow-minded, unfair. So perhaps the reply hinged on flipping the query. Neglect in regards to the salty-licorice international locations for a second: Why does salmiakki really feel like such a class error to the remainder of us? And was the reply to that query proper in entrance of my face? May one of many secrets and techniques to Finnish happiness merely come right down to not at all times anticipating hearts to be candy?
Dumping the bag of licorice onto my desk, I started to dig round, pushing apart a Tremendous Salmiakki lollipop, a packet of Dracula Piller (salmiakki with a creepy vampire mascot), a field of peppered salmiakki pellets (really known as Sisu!), earlier than lastly extracting what I used to be searching for. And what have you learnt? With the foreknowledge of what was coming, it didn’t style all that unhealthy. I imply, definitely no worse than any of the remaining.
I resealed the bag of hearts and changed them within the purchasing bag. I haven’t touched any licorice since.
Mark Binelli is a contributing author for the journal and the writer of “Detroit Metropolis Is the Place to Be.” He final wrote for the journal about the Australian author Gerald Murnane.