I studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence when I was 16. That was nearly 10 years ago. I flew to France wearing size 0 jeans and when I returned those jeans were just a bit snug. I spent every moment of the 6 weeks trying to eat everything in sight… I loved it. The bread was delicious. The cheese was so good. The charcuterie was amazing… but what I loved most was those little candies that you could buy by the handful that were often green… sometimes black… but they were flavored with star anise. I love licorice. Love. Love. LOVE it. And as a candy-monster I spent my little centimes purchasing bags of these candies and comparing which tasted best. I’m pretty sure I was just a little cloud of star anise those six weeks (and probably the three weeks after I got to the states and was working through my stash of French candies). Occasionally, I see imported candies that resemble those amazing translucent green licorice candies… but I’m always disappointed to find that they are not exactly the candy I want.
One week before returning to the states, I went to a huge outdoor market and I stopped at a spice stand. The old man had every spice I had ever seen… and as most Americans I was concerned by the cleanliness of these open-air markets. It’s so warm, friendly, and homey… and exactly the opposite of our sterile grocery stores where everything is uniformly colored and perfectly polished. Anyway, I chatted in my broken French and asked him questions about all the little buckets of spices… and then I spotted the most beautiful star shaped spice. I asked him…. what is that?! And he told me that most Americans didn’t like it because it was star anise and tasted like licorice. Of course, I purchased a precious bag filled with those pretty star anise and cradled them all the way home. They were not shipped in my suitcase in cargo, but snuggled next to me on the plane along with my favorite almond croissants and a rather obscenely large bag of green licorice candies.
Since returning from that trip when I fell even more in love with star anise and anything licorice flavored… star anise has been popping up more and more. When I first returned I hoarded my little bag of star anise… in fact I still have a couple little stars left from that fateful market day. No star anise purchased in the States has the same delicate aroma or flavor as those stars I bought in France. Regardless, I urge you all to try incorporating star anise into your cooking and baking. I recently made candied kumquats and tossed a few of my precious French anise into the syrup. They kumquats take on the anise flavor, and somehow become even more delicious. It’s not quite citrus, but instead this exotic candy that you’ve never experienced before.
If you have the pleasure of find whole star anise, I suggest tossing a few stars into boiling water and allowing it to steep for several minutes. Stir in a bit of honey and you will have a beautiful tea. Forget the idea that it will taste like black licorice… it’s more floral and delicate that those disgusting black ropes of molasses licorice.