What’s so good about a bitter taste
Having the full kaleidoscope of tastes in our diet is important, and the resurgence of bitter is good for our health
Claire Davey, of America Village Apothecary Company, with a bottle of her tonic syrup, which makes the best gin and tonic ever.
Bitterness is breaking out, all over the country. In Belfast recently, I ate a dish of coffee-roasted Comber carrots, the bitterness of the coffee a resonant note alongside the carrots. In Galway, I had a dish of queen scallop with cauliflower and watercress, the sweetness of seafood and vegetable arrested by the presence of bitter watercress.
In Co Down, I came across a craft beer called Farmageddon, made by a bunch of guys who describe themselves as “devoted hop heads”.
It was the most bitter India pale ale I have ever tasted, a hand grenade of hoppyness.
In Co Clare, at Hazel Mountain Chocolates, I tried some 72 per cent Venezuelan chocolate with roasted hazelnuts.
In Dublin, at Roasted Brown in Temple Bar, a cup of Rwandan Kamiro delivered notes of bitter lemon zest, quickly followed by bergamot, exactly as barista Rob Lewis had predicted.
Back in Galway, I met Claire Davey, whose America Village Apothecary Company is about to begin making bitters, and from whom I bought a bottle of her bitter syrup, which uses cinchona bark among its ingredients. Cinchona bark was the original source of quinine, which gave the antimalarial medicinal ingredient originally used in Indian tonic water. Davey’s tonic syrup makes the best gin and tonic ever.
And the potato and leek soup I just made for lunch was finished off with a slick of wonderful extra virgin olive oil from Lazio, giving the soup a bolt of bitter, along with a peppery heat.
Just think about it: this year, in the most dynamic areas of our food scene – craft brewing, bean-to-bar chocolate making, coffee roasting, running restaurants – food seems to have suddenly become a bitter business.
This is surprising. Bitter is the taste of poison and, as children, we recoil from it immediately. But bitter is all about paradox: we crave coffee, for its bitterness. As if beer wasn’t bitter enough, we had to go and invent stout, which is even more bitter. And chocolate, proper chocolate, is all about bitterness.
The olives that we nibble with an aperitif are bitter, and savagely bitter drinks – Fernet-Branca, Riga Black Balsam and Angostura bitters – are among the best-known drinks in the world, if not, perhaps, the best-loved.
The resurgence of bitter is a good thing for our health. Of the five recognised tastes – sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami – we have allowed salt and sweet to come to dominate our diets.
In Bitter, her new book on the subject, Jennifer McLagan argues that bitter is vital. “Bitterness is a double-edged sword: it signals toxic and dangerous, but it can also be pleasurable and beneficial,” she writes.
“In the kitchen, eschewing bitter is like cooking without salt . . . Food without bitterness lacks depth and complexity.”
The great Danish chef Christian F Puglisi agrees: “Bitterness is the magic touch that keeps flavours tight and orderly, mouthful after mouthful.
“It prevents sweetness from taking over . . . and it gives a direction for other flavours to follow.”
Having the full kaleidoscope of tastes in our diet is important. The different tastes helped us to evolve, and continue to help us evolve: if you can get your kids into bitter tastes, they will come to appreciate and enjoy them sooner.
That is why Korean kids are fed kimchi and visit kimchi museums on school trips.
Bitterness has two important functions as a taste.
Firstly, it primes us to enjoy food: that is why you might have a gin and tonic as an aperitif, to kickstart the appetite.
But bitterness also signals satiety: having a cup of bitter coffee after dinner signals that you have eaten enough, and that dinner is over.
Bitterness is there at the start of the meal, and it is also there at the end.
John McKenna is the author of Where to Eat and Stay on the Wild Atlantic Way