Monday, 14 April 2008

Introducing Swedish Bitters

I don't know about you but I had never heard of Swedish Bitters until some friends came visiting with some very good things to say about this traditional remedy. :) Excited because of it's reputation for curing many different illnesses and for promoting general good health, it wasn't long before I was brewing my own. The after dinner ritual of passing round the bitters, seeing the expressions on people's faces as it greets the taste buds, and then feeling the warming sensation as it goes down, is a lot of fun - quite besides the health benefits!

Originally said to have been formulated by Paracelsius, the Swedish Bitters recipe was re-discovered and popularised by the Austrian herbalist, Maria Treben, in the late 20th century. If you read her wonderful book 'Health through God's Pharmacy' you will see that Swedish Bitters has many different curative properties, the most noticeable (to me anyway) has been to promote a healthy digestive system. I've also read elsewhere that our diets today tend to be missing a bitter component, while we eat more than enough of sweet, savoury, and sour foods. This preference for non-bitter tastes may explain the decline in popularity of bitters as a medicine?

As well as Swedish Bitters, there are a long list of other bitter recipes that have mainly died out. The remaining ones - such as Benedictine, Angostura and Peychaud's - tend to be known as cocktail flavours or aperitifs, rather than as remedies or digestifs. Interestingly, it is sometimes recommended that bitters is drunk before the meal as it stimulates the secretion of bile and therefore gets the digestive system going before eating. This seems to make sense! However, it somehow feels right to have it after the meal (perhaps because of the enjoyable ritual of handing round the bitters) and a friend recently told me that he actually finds it effective when taken after the meal, but upsetting to the stomach when taken before the meal. Hmmm!

The bitter recipes still available use a variety of different bitter herbs as their ingredients, with some of the most common being: angostura bark, cascarilla, cassia, gentian, orange peel and quinine.

Maria Treben's recipe for "small" bitters contains the following herbs:
  • Aloe (Aloe ferox) only grows in one region of South Africa and is used for it's laxative, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic qualities.
  • Myrhh (Commifora molmol) has a variety of uses - probably the most relevant here is it's effectiveness in lowering blood fats and therefore helping to reduce deposits of cholesterol and triglycerides (whatever they are). It is an ingredient in the Italian beverage Fernet-Branca, which is very popular in Argentina, and is drunk as a digestif and used to treat gastro-intestinal discomfort.
  • Saffron (Crocus sativus) is apparently one of the oldest herbs used for medicinal purposes, as well as being renowned as a spice, and an ingredient in dye. Medicinally it is used for coughs, bronchitis, insomnia, hysteria, menstrual disorders and depression.
  • Senna (Cassia angustifolia) leaves are used in cases of constipation (as are the pods).
  • Camphor (Cinnamomum camphora) seems to have been used historically for a variety of benefits (for which there are an equal number of arguments against them) from reducing sexual urges to cholera! Today it is mostly only used externally in stimulating lotions to increase surface heat (I recently added it the essential oil to a massage lotion for bursitis). I'm not quite sure what it's purpose is in Swedish Bitters - it's general effect seems to be warming, which is always a good thing as far as I'm concerned. :-)
  • Rhubarb (Rheum palmatan) roots have apparently been used as a strong laxative for over 5,000 years.
  • Zedvoary (Curcuma zedoaria) roots are part of the ginger family, and closely related to turmeric. Originating in North East India, it is widely used in China and Japan for medicine, perfume and liquor. As with other bitter herbs, it aids digestion by stimulating bile secretion. It is also said to purify the blood.
  • Manna (Fraxinus Ornus) resin is not, as I originally thought, the manna or "bread of heaven" to be found in the bible! LOL I wasn't too far off though as the name of this deciduous tree originated from a comparison of it's sweet resin to the substance known as manna in the bible (which is also tree resin that falls to the ground as a sort of pellet). In terms of medicinal use, it is supposed to be a gentle laxative (often being used for children or pregnant women) and tonic.
  • Theriac Venezian (Pimpinella saxifraga), also known as Burnet Saxifrage, is most often used as a remedy in cases of bronchitis, coughs, sore throats and stomach complaints. It is expectorant and antioxidant. The root is used. In Roman times, the physician Galen used theriac in his most famous medicinal formula known as Theriac Venezian (Venetian treacle) - a "cure all" for many diseases and antidote to poisons, that contained 64 ingredients.
  • Carline thistle (Carlina acaulis) is only occasionally used in modern herbalism - for digestive complaints, skin disorders and as an antiseptic for wounds. The roots are used in bitters.
  • Angelica (Angelica archangelica) roots are often included in digestive tonics, either with other herbs or on their own as either a decoction or tincture.
In researching the ingredients of Swedish Bitters, there is a sense of antiquity and going back to our roots - if you'll excuse the pun! I feel like I have journeyed through many a dusty old tome of folk and ancient herbal wisdom. A common theme I noticed, is that many of these herbs are little used in modern herbalism... I'm not sure yet why? But I do know that so far all of my friends who have been using Swedish Bitters have reported positive effects.

See also my Swedish Bitters - Addendum post, a warning about Swedish Bitters being too aggressive on the system, and which I'm still looking into. I've also written a post on Swedish Bitters cream.

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the information on swedish bitters! I have recently been introduced to it by a friend!

    I will bookmark your blog :)