Bitterness: A Taste to Cultivate

You may have noticed that in this issue of the journal, the word ‘bitter’ has come up more than once. Even the sweetness of carrots is tempered with the bitter hops that give bite to ales both pale and dark.

This is no accident. It’s also not a secret message about how we feel about Valentines Day, we promise. Rather, it is a reminder that our palates, and our digestive system, as well as our hearts, sometimes need to be challenged in order to do their best work.

The human response to bitterness is often one of aversion, a logical evolutionary response to a flavor that signals toxicity in many foods. However, and obviously, not every bitter thing is poisonous. Furthermore, bitter foods stimulate the liver to produce bile, which is important for optimal digestion. A liver that is challenged regularly by the ingestion of bitter foods is a liver that is healthy and functioning at its best. Just as muscles require frequent exercise to maintain peak health, so do our organs benefit from the opportunity to perform the use for which they have evolved. Think of the bitter flavor as barbells for your digestive system.

It goes deeper than that, though. Because bitterness is so often an indicator of inedibility

in the plant kingdom, it has taken on a kind of forbidden quality in our tastes, particularly here in the west, where corn and sugar have ruled for decades. But a closer look reveals that many beloved foods actually exhibit that bitter flavor; coffee, chocolate, and hops come immediately to mind. Arugula, walnuts, and olive oil are more subtly bitter, and of course, the featured cardoons and grapefruits in this issue of the journal. This twin reaction of inherent wariness and learned appreciation combines to make the bitter foods we learn to love all the more memorable, the exceptions that prove the rule. Think of a Manhattan without a dash of bitters; it is cloyingly sweet. Just a hint of that forbidden, exciting flavor from the bitters bottle makes the drink something to sip and to savor. The European tradition of bitter herbal digestifs, made to drink straight before meals, exploits this quality as well, priming our appetite for the meal ahead.

And in fact, many bitter foods do contain useful compounds that are beneficial, stimulating, and quite healthy for us in measured doses.

“Eschewing bitter is like cooking without salt, or eating without looking,” writes Jennifer McLagan, in her darkly beautiful book, Bitter: A Taste of the World's Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes. “Without bitterness, we lose a way to balance sweetness, and by rejecting it we limit our range of flavors. Food without bitterness lacks depth and complexity.”

The bitter quality is understood to be a counterbalance to excessive sweetness; ingesting bitter foods can actually reduce the craving for sweets, a welcome benefit in a season of candied hearts that can lack both nutrition and complexity. Of course, the juxtaposition of opposites can also make for exciting cuisine that marries the 2 opposites, as seen here: candied grapefruit peel, nocino, bitters, blood orange port marmalade, lavender lemon marmalade.

It’s this marriage of opposites that speaks most strongly to the heart, the tongue, the gut. Our culture can sometimes seem overly saturated with sweetness, from the saccharine sweetness of packaged foods, to the false cheer of harried sales staff. Too much sweetness overwhelms the senses, makes us mistrust what we are taking in; what flavor does such excessive sweetness mask, or what is lacking that sweetness must compensate? A sprinkle of salt, a squeeze of sour lemon, and yes, a drop of bitter; these qualities can serve to refresh and enliven a palate jaded by easy sweetness lacking substance. Bitter can be dangerous, challenging, stimulating, and controversial; a little goes a long way. We would not want to live by bitterness alone, any more than we would want to eat nothing but salt, or sugar by the spoonful. But a little bite of bitter can bring the needed element of surprise, even mystery, back into the kitchen. Seems like a pretty good trick. And just in time for Valentines Day, no less.