Discussions of Icelandic dietary habits have swayed towards the culture shock of it all but what are they saying about the Icelandic sweets?
Nonetheless, Icelanders along with their fellow Scandinavians and northern European brethren, the Dutch for example, love their licorice unabashedly. But is licorice the sole thing that distinguishes Iceland's culture of sugary delights and confectionary from the rest of globe?
Most individuals will easily notice that Icelanders are voracious consumers of candy; stores are chock-full of it from all around the globe not to the mention the staggering myriad of domestic products for an island nation of merely 320,000 souls. Heck, even Saturdays are known as the official candy-days among the youth and ‘bland í poka' (a potpourri of candy in a bag) will be sold at a discount. It is safe to claim “bland í poka” as a vaunted cultural institute of Iceland. In fact, if you visit the Hagkaup grocery store in Kringlan shopping mall on a Saturday, you will notice it is jam packed with kids.
To back such generalizations up, consider this: consumer consumption of candy in Iceland is rather high. A cursory glance at some numbers released by Statistics Iceland reveals that during the years of 2010-2012, most Icelandic homes in the capital area were consuming an equivalent of 82,000 ISK of candy per residence, while in regions outside the area the expenditure was 4,000 ISK higher on average. To put that into perspective, that is more than a quarter of some peoples' monthly salary.
Such extravagance would have been unimaginable to people of my grandparents' generation, especially since a piece of fruit during Christmas was considered a valued luxury. Although that was a reality for most, there were occasional treats such as kandís (brown sugar crystals), lozenges, apothecary licorice (Did you really think we would forget our licorice?) and an array of other old fashioned candy.
Most Icelandic children of the 70s and 80s have scrumptious memories of two things. One is drinking Coke with a makeshift licorice straw (yes, again with licorice). Yet for some reason this habit seems to have mysteriously ceased over the past two decades. The other consumption habit that is still going strong is the Polish delight known as Prince Polo. For many years, Prince Polo was the most popular candy bar in the country and in the minds of most Icelanders it was a quintessential Icelandic delicacy. This obvious love was enshrined into musical history when in 1981 there was even a song called “Prins Póló.” Not surprisingly, it was about a vivacious sailors' tune—with a zest for life and Prince Polo. And one cannot forget to cite the fact that one of Iceland's hottest bands today takes its name from this delicacy.
The origins of this Polish chocolate is that it arrived on Icelandic shores back in 1955; before that time Iceland had strict import restrictions in place and to circumvent the problem, the importer of Prince Polo registered it as a cookie. According to a news article by the Icelandic news portal vísir.is, at the height of its popularity in 1970, each Icelander consumed a kilo of Prince Polo annually, which in its regular size amounts to about 30 bars for each person. Yes, Icelanders were so crazy for Prince Polo that even the Polish press was surprised when they reported on its history in Iceland last year, and they also showed off a front-page headline from the Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið, stating: Prince Polo is sold out.
Another one of the oldest Icelandic candies on the market are the tiny licorice lozenges Opal, which back in the 50's, were often advertised as throat lozenges. Since their inception, they have almost had an unremitting phase with the same hypnotic and iconic design. It was only in 2005 that an attempt to “modernize” the candy occurred, the distributer Nóa Siríus altered the packaging to make it more futuristic; in addition to these radical changes, the blue version of Opal was discontinued that year.
The reason for the discontinuation was that the main ingredient had been discontinued and all efforts by the company to find a similar tasting ingredient were unfruitful. So, instead of offering an old product with a new taste, Blue Opal was retired. Of course, being Iceland this tale has a more surreal take; the mysterious substance in question was chloroform. Interestingly enough, Icelandic newspaper reports from 1984 also reveal that Blue Opal was discontinued for a few months in order to alter the recipe, since new regulation allowed only a 2% amount of the chemical, but in collaboration with the Swiss company Givaudan, the now defunct Opal company, managed to get the percentage down to only 1.4%.
But back in 2005, much to the dismay of many segments of the Icelandic population, Blue Opal was forced into retirement because the European Union put a stricter regulation into place, especially concerning the chemical as an additive in food products—since studies reveal it can be carcinogenic, among other things. In addition, the concentration of chloroform should also not exceed 0.1% according to weight, and this includes cleaning products, ouch.
But hey, it sure was a sweet tasting candy as is attested by the sentimental longing that preoccupies thousands of Icelanders who are members in a Facebook group demanding its return. Some individuals have even bought old packages from over a decade ago for thousands of ISK. So yes, Icelanders are loyal to their candy.
If you are in an exploratory mood and feel a need to unearth the other sweet delights this island nation has to offer, you have plenty of options. A perennial classic in Iceland is the “kókosbolla.” Imagine the white filling of a Twinkie, just much tastier, and sans the moist flour casing; instead you have a chocolate covered delight sprinkled with coconut shavings. To experience this delight, head out to the famous flea market Kolaportið in downtown Reykjavik for a more genuine experience.
Another stellar candy bar is Draumur, which is essentially a candy bar that consists of two tubes of black licorice covered by milk chocolate. Quite tasty and always available at the cinemas lest there be disgruntled customers. One of the newer additions to the Icelandic Candy Hall of Fame” candidates is Djúpur (idiomatically: deeps). This licorice candy is coated by milk chocolate and white sugar coating and has made more than a few people overdose on them, including myself, so approach these devilish delights with caution.
Finally, there are two classic treats that must be mentioned; one is Lindu Buff. To describe this gooey treat simply does it no justice. Your palate is hit by a marshmallow concoction, dipped with just the right amount of chocolate. The texture is sublime but constant consumption of these babies will easily introduce you to diabetes.
The other is Nóa Kropp that is so ubiquitous that it is a stable on baked cakes and at birthday parties. Nóa Kropp candy is basically a corn-puff candy covered with chocolate, but tends to be eaten in copious amounts by many Icelanders.
As you readily imagine, licorice is far from the only sweet thing that the makes Iceland a distinct player in the world of confectionery consumption. Icelanders are candy fanatics, fiercely passionate about their candy. Also, try to appreciate our licorice—and for the love of god, don't mock Icelandic candy—or you might not get any!
by Marvin Lee Dupree
Photos: Courtesy of various Icelandic candy manufacturers