HHH column: The origins of salty liquorice by Marieke Hendriksen

The HHH column is a monthly blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts on research, current affairs, or anything to do with medical history. Each edition is written by a different member – in due time, we hope to offer everybody a chance to publish a contributionThis month, the floor is for Marieke Hendriksen, a historian of early modern science, art, and knowledge based at the Humanities Cluster of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) in Amsterdam. In this column, Marieke gives readers a taste of the history of an (in)famous Dutch product: salty liquorice. She also explains why liquorice is relevant to the history of medicine, and when it came to be seen as Dutch.

The origins of salty liquorice

Marieke Hendriksen

I am writing this overlooking the Mediterranean Sea – I have been lucky enough to land a six-week residency at the Camargo Foundation in southern France, to work on two book projects. One of the books is about liquorice confectionary, to the bemusement of my (non-Dutch) fellow residents, who think liquorice tastes awful. Like most Dutch people, I am fond of liquorice, especially the salty type. But why is a historian of medicine writing a book about liquorice you may ask? For two reasons: I am part of NL-Lab, a research group that critically studies Dutch culture and identity, and liquorice confectionary has its roots in the apothecary shop. Although it is consumed in many northern European countries, the Dutch do eat most: up to 2 kilograms per person per year. Salty liquorice is mostly eaten in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Iceland, and some parts of Germany.

It is unclear who first created this curious product, but here too the origins appear to be pharmaceutical. Most salty liquorice isn’t salty because of the addition of kitchen salt (natrium chloride, NaCl), but because it contains salmiac (NH4Cl). Salmiac is short for sal ammoniac, a relatively rare mineral that occurs naturally around volcano craters. It tastes salty, but unlike regular salt, it does not elevate blood pressure (although the glycyrrhizin acid in liquorice root does). Salmiac has a slightly irritating effect on the mucous membranes, which was thought to encourage the release of mucus through coughing. Salmiac can also be produced artificially by combining hydrochloric acid and ammoniac. This process was known by the mid-eighteenth century: the German chemist Johann Georg Model (1711-1775), apothecary to the Russian court in St. Petersburg, described in his 1785 Versuche und Gedanken über ein natürliches und gewachsenes Salmiac.

Naturally occurring salmiac is already mentioned in Dutch in a 1663 pharmaceutical recipe for a blocked spleen, in a book on maritime medicine by Abraham Vrolingh, Der matroosen ghesontheydt, ofte de goede dispositie der zee-varende ende alle andere lieden. But because naturally occurring salmiac is so rare, it is unsurprising that such recipes only become more common after 1758. The first time salmiac is combined with liquorice extract in a Dutch recipe is in the 1851 national pharmacopeia: these ‘Trochisci Chloreti Ammonici’ are basically salty liquorice drops.

By 1871, the first ad for cough drops containing liquorice, salmiac, malt, aniseed sulphur, and opium(!) appeared in a Dutch newspaper. They were produced by the apothecary and chemist Heinrich von Gimborn (1830-1893), from the German-Dutch border town of Emmerich. The father of the later founder of the Gimborn Arboretum in Doorn by that time had about forty selling points throughout the Netherlands. By the last decades of the nineteenth century, various producers were advertising cough drops containing salmiac in the Netherlands.

Advertisement for Von Gimborn’s salmiac-liquorice drops, Algemeen Handelsblad, 09-04-1871. Source: Delpher

As these adds shows, liquorice was not considered to be particularly Dutch around 1900. In fact, that idea was not established until after World War II, when a surprising combination of government policies, a changing economy, some disappointing pharmaceutical research outcomes, and one particularly media-savvy biochemist led to the linking of liquorice to Dutch identity. Exactly how that happened is a story I tell in an article and in my forthcoming book.

For more on the history of liquorice, you can read Marieke Hendriksen’s most recent article “The Dutch and their Love for Liquorice: How a Cough Medicine became Part of National Identity,” in Food & History (2023), 21:2, pp. 81-108. You may ask the author for a PDF of the article at marieke.hendriksen@huc.knaw.nl. The book “Het Grote Dropboek”, by the same author, will appear with Just Publishing in December 2023.