I was fascinated by these tiny little tins in the Italian deli. They claimed to have licorice in them, but they rattled!

The clerk was obviously excited about all of the wacky Italian treats surrounding him. He offered to open one up and give me a sample. I didn't like licorice, but he promised me an experience the likes of which I had never had with it.

He opened one and shook a candy out for himself, then handed it to me. I slid it open, revealing a little round hole in the box itself. When I shook it, one extremely tiny, hard, dark brown cylinder fell out. Like a mistake, or a snippet of rubber, or a bit of pencil lead.

The first thing I tasted when I put it in my mouth was a sort of all-permeating sweetness. Then: burning. It smelled and tasted like burning. The picture on the front was of a tiny pile of the pellets above a tiny stack of licorice twigs. They tasted a lot like someone had set fire to them, magical fire that concentrated a whole licorice bush into one tiny cylinder and left it with a slight and persistent flavor of burning.

The flavor kept changing and developing in my mouth. It was extremely powerful, and nothing at all like a normal licorice candy. I can't even remember what licorice tasted like. I remember picking the black jelly beans out, distastefully. I remember avoiding licorice whips, which are mostly red and not licoricey now anyway. I remember being repelled as a child by accidental ingestion of licorice candy. But the flavor of that fake licorice has been burned out of my head by these wildly pungent pellets.

Of course I bought one. Even though it cost me about US$3.49 just for this tiny little box. I was powerfully intrigued! The tin is about one inch by two inches, and skinny, and metal. I turned it over just now, looking in vain for ingredients. How can they not have ingredients? Even if Italy doesn't require them on everything, I know from shopping at my favorite Korean grocery store that they have to slap English-language nutritional labels on them here. I don't speak Italian, but I speak Spanish and French and I am Italian, and somehow all of that adds up to me being able to understand most Italian without actually being able to respond to it. And one phrase on the tin catches my eye: "Senza zuccheri aggiunti."

At first my subconscious thinks this means that it is just licorice and sugar. Then I realize that none of those words is "licorice." Then my conscious brain gets into it and says "Sugar and zucchini!" But somewhere in there, part of me says, "NO SUGAR ADDED."

No sugar added? Are they nuts? Why would you do such a thing? Never mind that I am always looking for sweet things without sugar (or weird artificial sweeteners), I don't want straight licorice in my mouth! What is happening here?!

I go to Babelfish. It semi-competently agrees: "Without added sugars." Oh christ. Oh, there's some kind of super-concentrated charcoal in my mouth. Oh my god please help me.

And the burning flavor changes to a kind of burned rubber... atmosphere... in my mouth. It grows more and less intense as I suck on it. It's sweet! But they do use licorice to sweeten tea. I like mint and licorice tea because the sweetness of the licorice brings out the flavor of the mint without licoricing it up or making me add sugar. Oh my god it's all true. What the hell did they do to me?!

I eat another one. The initial flavor is sweet, then botanical, then almost like coffee or chocolate, except for the anise flavor that keeps going underneath. Then there's that very strong burning flavor that becomes almost like burned rubber. I think that's where the flavor starts to die down. It becomes more like actual licorice there, only it's hard to notice the more subtle licorice flavor under (and after) everything that has just happened. That licorice taste lasts longer than the bursts of flavor in the beginning. It gets progressively sweeter again, too. At this point the little twig is about half the size it was to begin with, and I stop and crunch it up.

I eat another one to find out how they taste when you just crunch them up entirely, heedless of the fact that my girlfriend has threatened not to kiss me on days that I eat these. They smell nothing like real licorice! She'll never know! Oh my god that is strong. It almost makes me feel sick to eat it that fast, and some of it gets stuck in my teeth. The super-pungent stuff tastes too strong to get out with my tongue but I keep trying anyway.

Recklessly, I eat another one. After crunching the last one up, this one tastes different. It isn't as sweet at the beginning, and moves quickly into weird complex licoricey-burny-earthy flavors. Maybe there's something I'm missing by eating them one at a time! The flavors might multiply! I almost jam a bunch in my mouth at once, in the cause of Science, but settle for two.

Oh crap, this is going to make me sick. They are not meant to be eaten this way! The flavors are too strong! It might even be toxic! It's trying to take over my whole body by the tastebuds! Help meeee!

Fortunately, they are too small and I win out again. This time, they leave that almost-chocolatey flavor behind as a trophy. I am intrigued, but I am wise enough to stop when I am ahead.

I do not understand these things. But I like them. They are horrifyingly intense and incredibly powerful. How can you not like an eensy-weensy super-teensy little scrap of food with so much attitude? Nothing this small should have that much flavor. It should have less flavor than a pea. Instead, one miniature scrap of apparently entirely natural just-plain-licorice, through whatever wildly magical and ancient methods the Leone company (est. 1857) uses, has enough flavor to fill the entire tin all by itself. And it's in there with like fifty of its friends!

I like these suckers because every time I eat one it's a wild and crazy adventure where I do not know what will happen. I don't think I know a single other person who will even try them. Everyone just says they hate licorice, and then they sort of recoil from me. I try to explain that this has nothing to do with licorice, but they don't understand. They can't understand how far this is removed from any other food experience I know of on this planet. Liquirizia Due Sicilie: definitely alien licorice. Maybe poison. Try it.

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