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by Alex Williams January 29, 2021
What is your relationship to the bitter taste? For a lot of us, bitters evoke familiarity while presenting a challenge to the taste buds. We know what it tastes like and we know it takes a bit of grit to endure. It's not a taste we have to search for, because when present, bitter tends to shout.
For those of us who love bitter, we can probably trace back to a time when we would have preferred against a dish a bitter greens. For those of us who presently can’t stand bitter, know that there will be a time when you will come to welcome the bitter taste into your palate, given the courage to embrace the new and challenging.
How do I know this? Because it's part of who we are as humans, we evolved with bitter plants, evolved to ingest them, and we made it so far partially in our ability to discern bitterness from other tastes (more on this later).
The often used term ‘Bitters’ tends to refer to something beyond what the isolated flavor a certain leaf or root might convey. ‘Bitters’ are formulas, recipes balanced and constructed atop a bitter foundation which grounds both the formula and our bodies when we ingest them.
We've all enjoyed a bitters formula whether or not we've purchased a bottle of 'bitters' for our own home bar. Consider a wedge of grapefruit: the flesh with its sweetness and acidity combined with the strand of white pith from the rind of the grapefruit balancing, and even amplifying the sweetness of the grapefruit with its bitter tinge.
But we're probably more accustomed to associating 'bitters' with the small, curious, and often cluttered collection of bottles you spot on the backbar of your favorite neighborhood cocktail bar (wow, it's been a while hasn't it?). In this case, the bitters formula refers to an intentional concoction made by human hands, using the same principles of construction and balance atop a bitter foundation that we find in the example of citrus above.
To ensure that we're all on the same page before we set forth on our journey into the strange realm of bitters, let's really pin down what we mean by 'bitter'. Yeah, we know it experientially, but what do we really mean when we refer to something as 'bitter'?
Simply put, we're referring to one taste among the five our taste buds can perceive: saltiness, sourness, bitterness, sweetness, and umami (savoriness).
Taste is differentiated from aroma and flavor, but all of these perceptions are included in the experience of bitters. Okay, one more time, maybe slower... or, I'll just let Samin Nosrat clarify:
"Aroma involves our noses sensing any of thousands of various chemical compounds. The descriptive words often used to characterize the way a wine smells, such as earthy, fruity, and floral, refer to aroma compounds.
Flavor lies at the intersection of taste, aroma, and sensory elements including texture, sound, appearance, and temperature."
So while we will be emphasizing the bitter component here, the whole pantheon of perceptions will be activated in our practice of crafting bitter formulas for our own health, pleasure, and enjoyment.
My hope in introducing you to the wild world of bitters will be to empower you and your community to reintroduce the often avoided but powerful ally we have in bitter plants, and to cultivate and nourish the latent wildness of our bodies that the wild weeds do so well in arousing.
Bitters trace their roots to a time long before humans grew out of our ancestral tree, where plants were more often poisonous than not. We developed the ability to perceive bitterness to avoid the deadly fate of eating such a poisonous plant and eventually our digestive systems found ways to adapt to the plant's bitter poisons, so we could digest and assimilate their nutrients.
We are who we are because of bitters, and conversely, we end up less of who we are if we fail to embrace the powerful allies we have in wild and bitter plants. In embracing bitters, we carry forth a lineage of ancestral wisdom and folk medicine inspired by the wild bitter plants themselves.
This post was in support of First Curve Apothecary’s 2021 Bitter’s Club
photo by cam sand
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