There’s a story I fondly recount, about the time my grandpa got me drunk on ouzo (sorry, Papou!). For those unfamiliar, ouzo is a clear, licorice-scented spirit that Greeks love to sip – straight or topped up with a little water to turn the liquid milky white, as if by magic.
One winter night we were engaged in a particularly animated gave of tavli, or Greek-style backgammon. I was maybe all of eight years at the time, and loved anything anise-flavoured: black jellybeans, licorice, Indian mukhwas (candy-coated fennel seeds)… suffice to say, I was keen to get my little hands on a thimbleful of ouzo. All the old men around the coffee table had a tumbler – some filled white and opaque, others with no-nonsense clear liquid – and the scent wafting from those glasses was cruel, cruel company to a licorice lover.
The details are blurred, but I eventually sweet talked a shot out of my Papou an drank it down like an especially potent juice… and then another from some unsuspecting old man too focused on tavli to realize I was tipsy. Before anyone could clink their glasses stin yia sas, a second-grader was vomiting her anise-scented dinner down the toilet.
For about 10 years Post-Ouzo, I couldn’t handle anything licorice. Those beloved jelly beans and my other grandpa’s coveted stash of bridge mix lost all previous appeal. My stomach turned and I was queasy at the very thought of anything with that horrid sickly-sweet medicinal scent.
My distaste wasn’t meant to last. Along the way, a delicious Krinos ouzo candy (the pungent little ones we serve at my folks’ restaurant) was popped in my mouth, and I was back. It’s been said that you’re born to either love or hate licorice, and I couldn’t deny my true self forever.
Teenage me would be aghast to learn my very favourite snack these days: cold, crisp fennel slices piled high on a plate, filling the whole room with a bright aroma. Fennel’s one of those neglected and overgrown supermarket specimens – braised beyond recognition or shaved into salads by Italian nonas. But it really shines on its own, where nothing masks its celery texture and snap of candy-like flavour. Fennel is incredibly cleansing, too, thanks to anethole, the aromatic in its essential oil that also makes it taste like licorice. Sidelined by a nasty bout of food poisoning these past two days, fennel was my antidote, the first thing I reached for. Cleansing and calming, it eased my whirling stomach.
I still steer clear of the ouzo for my own good, but any bag of jelly beans sent my way will be mysteriously missing the black ones before long.
Just making up for lost time.