Friday, October 12, 2012
Darrell Lea is an Australian confectionery company founded in 1927. They were known in Australia for their quaint and classic chocolate and licorice products sold at the company’s branded stores. (The company went into administration earlier this year and was bought out by the Quinn family, who also run VIP Petfoods. The shops are closed, but they’re still making candy.)
Here in the United States were get few of their products on our shelves, with their signature item being the Australian style licorice. I’ve even tried another version of their chocolate covered licorice before.
Cost Plus World Market recently had a big display of Australian and specifically a large array of Darrell Lea confections. I picked up a chocolate covered fudge bar and this package of Darrell Lea Dark Choc Liquorice Bullets.
The package holds 7 ounces, but is jam packed with the candies. It’s a heavy bag, like a bean bag filled with lead shot. The pieces are large. Think of a swollen Good & Plenty. Good & Plenty are about 2/3 of an inch long. These are over one inch. They’re consistent, dark and glossy. They smell like sweet chocolate and nothing like licorice.
The chocolate coating is nicely done, shiny and thick. The flavor is, well, thin. It’s like hot cocoa made with hot water instead of milk. The chocolate notes are like chocolate syrup. The licorice nib beneath is hefty and soft with a solid and satisfying chew. The earthy flavors of the licorice go pretty well with the chocolate. It’s almost bitter with lots of notes of dirt and minerals but not a whole lot of anise, more on the green fennel flavors.
The chew leaves behind lots of sticky bits of the licorice in my teeth and has a sort of rib sticking density as well. The ingredients show that this is real chocolate, though it does contain PGPR (an extra emulsifier) and butter (so it’s not vegan ... though it also lists shellac). The licorice base is wheat flour. It was made in a facility that also processes peanuts and tree nuts. There’s no corn syrup though, which I know some people avoid in a licorice.
I found them satisfying as a candy, but not great as a chocolate product or as a licorice product. I ate the whole bag, but it took me well over a month, as I kept losing interest. They also make a Milk Choc variety, which might have a better balance with the added dairy flavors. I don’t know what the financial restructuring will mean to availability of Darrell Lea products outside of Australia.
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
I saw some new packages of Panda Licorice on store shelves about six months ago. I thought it was cute and inventive. But I’ve already reviewed the Panda licorice line, for the most part, so there was no need for me to pick it up again.
What I didn’t realize is that this is actually a different line of licorice, with a different formula. The Panda Traditional Soft Original Licorice is part of the Panda “confections” line. It was formulated specifically to widen the Panda brand’s appeal and to be sold in more mass-market stores, instead of the narrow appeal of stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s which usually have rules about what sort of ingredients a product can have.
It doesn’t say much on the front of the package, beyond the brand name and the product but it’s quite clear: No artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.
So a quick flip to the back of the package where they talk more about the traditional soft licorice and the heritage of the company that dates back to 1927 in Finland and how meticulous they are and how they use traditional ingredients. Those ingredients?
Yes, Panda’s licorice that’s otherwise free of artificial flavors, preservatives and colors, suitable for vegans, fat free and Kosher ... it’s made with high fructose corn syrup.
The price for this product? It was $2.99 at Cost Plus World Market for a 7 ounce bag.
The pieces of the Traditional Soft Original Licorice has 87.75 calories per ounce and 1 gram of protein. The pieces are large, sticky and very sweet. The one inch nubs are doughy and a little more “wheat” flavored than the classic variety.
It’s downright wet. In fact that may account for the lower calories on this variety, the fact that they have more water in them.
The licorice flavor is bland, though distinctly natural. It tastes more like anise though the sweetness has that soft licorice note to it. What’s missing for me is the molasses, that earthy flavor that has lots of toffee, burnt sugar, charcoal, oak and beets in it.
It sticks to my teeth. It sticks to my ribs. It sticks to my fingers, it sticks to the package.
In the interest of fairness, I had to revisit the stuff that’s made Finland famous. The All Natural Soft Licorice is made from an even shorter list of ingredients: Molasses, wheat flour, licorice extract, natural flavor (aniseseed oil). It has 92.14 calories per ounce but 2 grams of protein per serving. The price? It was $2.99 for a 6 ounce bag.
So for the same price you get about 14% less. But what was in that 14%? I have to wonder if it’s just high fructose corn syrup, watering the whole thing down.
The classic pieces in the bag are 3/4” tall and just a little smaller in diameter. They’re also far less sticky. They feel lighter and stiffer than their doughy counterparts. Plus it has all those complex flavors of molasses and licorice and less of the wheat flour.
It’s just baffling to me, since Panda has spent at least 40 years marketing itself in the United States as the premiere natural licorice brand, and competing against all brands, they’re still the fourth largest seller in the US. Much of their marketing, either by their hand or through the efforts of the stores that sell them have specified that Panda contains no “bad stuff” including high fructose corn syrup. So this change not only makes the candy taste bad, I think it’s done to purposely confuse consumers. The package uses the words traditional and original and says lots about how they don’t use those other bad ingredients. (But they do use a dubious ingredient that no one else uses, not even the cheapest of the cheap licorices.)
Lisa Gawthorne, Panda Liquorice spokesperson comments:
I tried engaging Panda in a dialogue about this change. I tweeted to them in March (they’ve answered in the past) but didn’t hear anything back. Then I tweeted to them again in June and they responded (though one of their responses they’ve since deleted). Here’s the exchange as it stands now.
Here’s the thing, though all this battle over high fructose corn sweetener, even as a candy writer, I haven’t had much to say. There’s not much to say, because HFCS in candy is incredibly rare. I’ve seen it in probably about five candies I’ve reviewed, and often when it does appear in other candies, it’s part of a whole ingredient like crushed cookies or a jelly, not something the candy company actually made themselves. HFCS just doesn’t behave the same way as a pure glucose syrup would or actual full sucrose. Ordinarily I would just be baffled that someone would use HFCS, but in this case I’m angry because Panda has cultivated their brand so carefully, in many cases specifically saying that they don’t use HFCS, as if everyone else does. When in reality it’s just them, in this lower price point line.
Friday, July 6, 2012
I’ve tried a few items in the Grandessa line from Aldi over the years and found them to be passable, but not their highest quality brand.
It’s a simple package, a matte plastic bag, rather small but dense. At only 7.5 inches by 4.5 inches it holds nearly a half a pound of soft licorice twists.
The licorice fingers are pretty big, they’re about 1.5 to 1.75 inches long (just a little shy of the size of my pinky finger, but I have very small pinkies).
They’re soft and a bit sticky on the outside. The chewy is doughy and soft and does get stuck on the teeth. The flavor profile is overwhelmingly earthy. There’s a lot of molasses and dark sugars (treacle, brown sugar and molasses are all ingredients). The flavor notes are anise, a light tangy note as some molasses can have, sweet licorice, black pepper, beets, pipe tobacco and coriander. The thick chew is less appealing to me though, because it does have a note of raw wheat flour.
Compared to Panda, it’s has more mineral and earthy flavors. It reminds me a lot of Kookabura Australian Liquorice, and may well be made under contract for Aldi’s Grandessa house brand by Kookabura. The ingredients are similar, though not exactly the same.
They’re made in Australia in a facility that processes peanuts and tree nuts. The ingredients list mono and diglycerides, so I can’t say that these are vegan.
Friday, June 15, 2012
There are lots of different kinds of black licorice with different flavor profiles and styles. There’s American twist licorice, Dutch salty licorice and Australian soft chew licorice. New Zealand even has its own brand, RJ’s Licorice.
I picked up this sample package at the Fancy Food Show earlier this year. It’s RJ’s Licorice Allsorts and they’re made with all natural ingredients, with no artificial colors. I thought this was a great idea, because I’m often turned off by weird flavors and aftertastes from artificial colors.
The other New Zealand twist on this is the flavor set for these candies, they come in four colors and flavors: Passion Fruit, Black Cherry, Lime and Orange.
They smell really good. They’re soft and have a strong anise and molasses note. The stack for the little sandwiches starts with a white layer or fondant, which seems to be unflavored or at least lightly flavored. Then there’s a thin square of black licorice. On top of that is the special flavored fondant. This fondant is just a soft sugar mixture, there’s no coconut in there like some Allsorts feature.
The orange pieces are Orange flavored. The white fondant is like a frosting, sugary and sweet and with only a light and soft touch of orange essence. There’s no tartness and little balance. The licorice layer is soft and pliable, chewy and has a nice profile. It’s a mix of woodsy molasses, toffee and other burnt flavors. It’s only the faintest bit bitter and quite sweet in that light way that licorice is. The white layer is unflavored, as far as I can tell.
The green looks rather like a highlighter and is Lime. This one was not entirely pleasant. I didn’t care for the lime layer, it was sweet and weirdly artificial even though it does use natural flavorings.
The faint pink is Black Cherry and has a great profile. The flavor is floral and a bit more punchy than the previous citrus ones. It dissipates quickly but still goes well with the licorice layer. It tasted far sweeter though on the whole than the other flavors.
The yellow sandwich was Passion Fruit which was the odd one in the batch. It was musky and had strong honey and floral notes. It goes pretty well with the licorice, which I never would have guessed. But still, it was a lot of different sweet notes, too much for me.
If you’re the type who likes very sweet and sugary candy, the type of person who eats straight sugar cube, this is a good choice. It wasn’t licorice-y enough for me and without enough of a fruity note from the fondant. I’ll stick to plain licorice from RJ’s for now.
Thursday, April 26, 2012
Luckily I found this little package in Amsterdam last year made by Perfetti Van Melle (makers of Mentos) called Lakritz Toffee. The black and silver package stopped me in my tracks, the topography, especially on the inner wrappers is also compelling and completely set my expectations of the morsels within. The only thing missing from the package was the warning that this was salted licorice.
For the uninitiated, some licorice from Northern Europe bears the descriptor of salted licorice, which in the time of sea salt caramels sounds enticing, but in reality it’s not sodium chloride, it’s ammonium chloride that’s added as a flavor enhancer. A little reading about ammonium chloride reveals that it has some medicinal properties, such irritating the gastric mucosa to initiate vomiting.
But I paid less than a buck for this little package, and I’m actually game for learning to love salted licorice, so I gave it my best shot.
The little pieces are wrapped and shaped just like a Starburst fruit chew. The color is great, like the creme on a fresh espresso. They’re barely soft but have a satisfying stiff chew. The licorice flavor is mild at first and has a lot of molasses and toasted flavors to it. The salted flavors come out more as a tangy and metallic bite. All is well, until I allow anything to aerate. I suspect that adding air causes the ammonia in the salt to vaporize into the actual gas, which is, you know, caustic.
The nice part of these toffee pieces, when I manged to eat them correctly, was how the “toffee” part, the creamy note, really brought it all together. It was a smooth chew, not quite buttery, but had a good mouthfeel and never became gritty or grainy. The licorice flavors were authentic, more on the root and herb side than the anise that’s more popular in boiled sugar licorice candies. As long as I only ate one or two, my licorice cravings were quelled. Any more than that and the ammonia notes were too strong.
Unfortunately these can’t be legally imported into the United States because they use a food color that’s banned here. But they’re still widely available in places like the Netherlands and Germany in my experience and sometimes folks will pop up on eBay or other online sweet shops. It contains gelatin as well, so is not suitable for vegetarians.
My go-to licorice toffee still has to be the Krema Batna and maybe the second runner up is Walkers Nonsuch Licorice Toffee (both of which are also banned for import) but if you’re looking for a salted version, this might be it.
Friday, January 6, 2012
It’s the time of year when I find myself turning to cough drops. Not so much this year because of any particular cold, but it makes me feel like it’s winter. There’s something about the flavors of cough drops that are as essential to the early months of the year as cinnamon and nutmeg is to Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Spice and herbal flavors have all but disappeared from hard candy on the shelves at mass market retailers, so cough drops are a good place to find that. I picked up this classic looking box of Luden’s Honey Licorice Throat Drops just before I found the revived Pine Bros Softish Throat Drops. I was attracted to the name of the flavor, licorice and honey are both soothing and uncommon.
The box is simple and elegant and features a belt & suspenders form of freshness protection. The drops themselves are inside a thick waxed paper sleeve inside the box, which has a tab top closure. Then the whole thing was inside cellophane shrink wrap. I appreciate the inner waxed liner, because the plastic overwrap only protects the drops while they’re in the store, not after I’ve opened them.
There are 14 drops inside and because these are therapeutic items, they’re not considered food and taxable in California. They’re marked as Kosher, but have no weight listed or a full nutritional panel.
The drops are petite, with smooth rounded corners, they are about 3/4 of an inch long. The color is, well, rather dull, but at least it isn’t enhanced with artificial colors (or flavors). The dissolve is smooth and there aren’t any sharp voids in the boiled sugar base. The flavor is strong on the menthol, light on the honey and with only a touch of anise/licorice. It reminds me of a hard candy version of Fisherman’s Friend. The menthol is strong enough to give me that cool feeling in my sinuses, which are pretty clear at the moment.
I finished the box and now I’m inclined to try some other flavors, like Honey Lemon.
As a side note, the cough drop and candy connection really isn’t that surprising. William H. Luden, who made Luden’s Throat Drops, also created the 5th Avenue bar and made various other items like peppermint patties, chocolate covered raisins and peanuts plus hard candies. Though Hershey’s now owns the rights to the Luden’s candy products (though only makes the 5th Avenue now), Luden’s cough drop business is now owned by a company called Prestige Brands which makes products like Cloraseptic, Efferdent and Compound W. (Let’s hope they never combine the attributes of all three of those products.) The package I’ve reviewed, however, still said McNeill Consumer Healthcare, which sold off Luden’s in late 2010. So there may be some differences in packaging and more current products.
UPDATE 3/2/2012: The packaging has changed. I have to say that I’m a little disappointed, because they’ve looked the same as long as I can remember. But then again, the new boxes are quite nice as well.
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
I went to Germany last week on a Candy Junket sponsored by German Sweets, part of the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection. Our group consisted of 10 American journalists & writers and covered 1,500 kilometers and in only five days we saw seven confectionery factories (map).
Though the weather was rather dismal (but expected) with temperatures in the forties and rain the whole week, we still braved the brisk and damp weather to take advantage of the famous Christmas Markets in as many towns as we could. The first one we stopped at was Lubeck, Germany, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Christmas Markets (Weihnachtsmarkt) feature mostly food and hot alcoholic beverages but also a small smattering of seasonal tasties like confections and some giftware like Christmas ornaments, hats, leathergoods and other small items.
One of the most common confectionery stalls that I saw at all three markets was the one that sold fresh candies nuts and gingerbread cookies. The cookies are for gifting and many were decorated garishly with frosting and had little affectionate sayings on them (photo). Most were heart shaped and came in a variety of sizes. Of course they’re horrible for bringing back in a suitcase, so I just looked at them.
The nuts were really appealing, just toffeed nuts of all kinds (photo). Almonds were the most common but each booth had a good assortment of walnuts, cashews and some peanuts. Some had more exotic flavors, the most common was a Christmas spice, but others had licorice or Nutella. The prices were pretty good, a little 100 gram (3.5 ounces) was 2.50 Euro and I believe they would mix if you asked.
The market in Berlin at Alexanderplatz near our hotel also had a small assortment of booths, again, most selling drinks and hot food and a more international fare of gift items (Russian nesting dolls, Indonisian carved bowls) as well as one confectionery stall with a rather large range of traditional candies from Germany and a few that looked more Nordic or Dutch.
The booths that sold Krauterbonbons, and I saw at least three of them in Lubeck, all smelled quite strongly of anise. It was as if they were using aromatherapy to attract customers. Two of the booths looked like they produced the candy right there. They had a copper kettle, a large counter of marble and a small pressing machine that can either cut the little candy pillows from a pulled rope of the hot sugar mixture or mold press them into individual pieces. However, we walked through the Lubeck market twice, once on the night we arrived around 8 PM, then again the next day when we visited the Niederegger cafe at lunchtime. Neither time did I see them making any candy, nor any of the other booths. Perhaps it was all theater, and perhaps it was just something they did in the morning to make their inventory for the day.
As it was my first visit to a Christmas Market, I picked up a small bag of their Krauterbonbons Mischung (Herbal Sweets Assortment), which fit easily in my pocket and I thought would travel well.
Inside the homely little plastic bag were 28 pieces in about ten different varieties. The shapes varied, some were just little pillows, others were rather rustic but pressed lumps and then there were the gems with their ornate patterns. They’re lightly sanded to keep them from sticking.
I can’t say what the flavors were supposed to be, as there was no key and many of the flavors I purchased were not sold separately (so I couldn’t match them up with the photos I took of the varieties in the jars at the booth).
Some were completely foreign to me. The little red puff was at first rather like raspberry, but there was a note of cola and maybe even Dr. Pepper (whatever that flavor is).
The light green flattened rod was pure peppermint. It was quite strong and fresh.
The black one that looks like a stylized corn cob is dark and sort of like molasses but lacking much else in the herb or spice area.
The brown rock looking thing was like a chocolate flavor, it tasted like black bread (Schwarzbrot with an hint of malt. If I had to find an American analogue, it’d be a chocolate Tootsie Pop. I actually liked this one quite a bit, it’s weird getting the flavor of dense, fresh bread in a hard candy.
The amber piece with a bee on it was honey, naturally. It was lovely. It tasted like honey and I wanted a whole jar of these, if not to eat, then just to look at.
There was also a single clear pillow with some black specks in it. It was a light anise and the exact flavor of the smell they were using to attract folks to the booth.
The light green flower with the cross in the center (back right) was rosemary. It was really refreshing, a little like pine and menthol but without any hint of bitterness.
The ribbed one with the cross in the center was like a cough drop, a mix of flavors similar to Ricola. It was minty but not completely peppermint, there was a menthol component and maybe a little touch of honey. The shape was fun to look at, as I kept an example of each on my desk lined up while tasting.
The black one with the hammers on it was like the one that I thought was like black bread, but with a strong note of licorice to it. It wasn’t overly sweet and I found it very soothing, especially with some bland, black tea.
If I had more time and was able to scope better, I probably would have gone back and picked up the flavors that were missing from my assortment. Lubeck definitely had the best assortment of these little lozenges and of course I would have loved to have seen them making them. (Mental note, next time, add “When do you make the candies” to my list of phrases I might need.)
If you’re going to be in Germany in the winter, the Christmas Markets are definitely something you should see, if only for a few hours. I think they’re probably more appealing to folks who eat sausage and drink alcohol but the one we saw in Schmalkalden actually had some fantastic looking cheese and cured meats. The architecture of many of these cities is lit up so I really felt like I was part of the place.
I was hoping to see more of a variety of sweets, but I fully understand the 90% of the Christmas Market is about tradition and the time warp of walking around a square in the dark with pretty lights and a cacophony of sounds and smells. There were no chocolates anywhere, though some of the stalls sold long ropes of flavored licorices and I actually got a giant Smurf gummi at one of them. The smaller the town we went to, the more they felt like they were true community events, not just something made up for the tourists. Their Christmas celebration through Advent, though front and center at every town, felt less commercial and more about community, even if it was temporary.
(Disclosure Note: The trip to Germany was sponsored, so I did not pay for my airfare, ground transportation, accommodations or food while I was there. At the factory tours we were given generous samples to consume on site as well as some to bring home. Any reviews of those products will be noted as to that fact. But I also brought a couple hundred Euros with me and spent them liberally and almost exclusively on candy both from the companies we were introduced to as well as many other Germany/European products that I found in my prowlings of grocery stores, department stores and the factory outlets.)
Sunday, December 11, 2011
When I was in Amsterdam, instead of seeing Altoids by the check out stand at the grocery, I saw Potter’s Original. The funny thing was, there was already one in my purse. Several months before my trip to Europe, I picked up a little tin to tuck into my bag.
It’s a cute little tin, light and narrow, it’s like a longer box of wooden matches. It has a pleasant rattling sound from the little candies inside. It was pretty cheap for licorice, too. They sell for less than 1 Euro, so about a buck and even in the United States I only paid $1.50. Of course there’s not much in there weight wise, it’s only .44 ounces.
In Holland folks call them simply Pottertjes. The flavor is a combination of licorice and menthol.
The tin has a clever dispensing set up under the lid. The second lid has a tiny hole that allows only one or two pieces to come out at a time. Each piece is about the size of a French lentil, though a bit square and pillowy.
I was fully expecting these to be strong and possibly salted. I was spared the latter, though they are quite potent not only in the licorice department but also have some sort of yin yang thing going on with some warming and some cooling.
The ingredients list a base of licorice and sugar then an addition of both menthol and capsathine. Capsathine is one of the constituents of hot peppers.
The flavors start bold and smoky, there’s a lot of molasses and woodsy licorice notes. Then the menthol gets things pepped up with a bit of nasal clearing ... then towards the end there’s a little burn, like a cayenne but without those green notes.
The texture is odd. Sometimes I thought I was chewing on a piece of paper, other times it was like slightly grainy gummi bear. They’re very small, but one does quite a bit. I’ve had the tin for nearly a year and do partake every once in a while. The overall flavors are on the medicinal side but much more interesting than the standard honey lemon variety.
Potter’s also makes a mild version, which I’ve bought but can’t bring myself to open until I finish (or get close to finishing) this one. They also make glycerine drops, similar to Pine Bros and Grether’s Pastilles. Hopefully when I have a layover in Amsterdam I can try to find some.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.