I first met bitter herbs through Swedish Bitters, which were recommended by a friend a few years back. I made copious amounts of the stuff at home (my first tincture making experience as well!), blogged about it, and even made a Swedish Bitters cream!
Since then I've given it less attention, but the usefulness of bitter herbs has stayed with me. Most typically I take a little Swedish Bitters in water if I've eaten a bit more than I should or my stomach just feels out of sorts. The taste still has me making weird faces, but it certainly is good stuff and works for me.
Here are seven useful bits and pieces I've collected about bitter herbs along the way:
- We have five kinds of taste buds: salty, savoury, sweet, sour and bitter. Now take a wild guess at which one we tend to avoid in our modern diet. Yes, bitters. So what are we missing out on by doing so?
- Bitter herbs, or the "bitter principle" in herbs, work by stimulating the "bitter taste buds in the mouth that reflexly initiate secretion of a special hormone into the blood stream increasing production of stomach and pancreatic juices and impelling the liver to release bile into the duodenum. Bitters increase acid production and are given about half an hour before meals". This is the description from Bartum's Encyclopaedia of Herbal Medicine. To me and you, they get the digestive system going. So they may taste, well, bitter... but there's no way round it I'm afraid as "to sweeten them is to nullify their effect".
- Bitter tonics should not be taken continuously, but only from time-to-time as needed.
- Apparently bitterness is rated relative to quinine (found in tonic water) although I couldn't find Bitterness Index ratings for herbs. At an extreme of bitterness is a substance called denatonium which is added to toxic substances to deter ingestion (I'm sure it works!)
- Chatting with Jo Batacanin at Neal's Yard last week, it seems that Wormwood (Artemisia absinthum), Centaury (Centaurium Erythraea) and Gentian (Gentiana Lutea) are the most commonly used bitter herbs, and then in tincture form (which I guess gets it over with relatively quickly at least!). At the milder end are herbs such as chamomile and yarrow, which are palatable in a herb tea.
- In my experience, there seems to be more use of bitter (and other) herbs in Europe than in the UK, one form being in alcoholic drinks or "digestifs" in French, which says it all really. Here in the UK the best known bitter drink is angostura, which apparently includes gentian, and a good glug or two of this in a gin and tonic is about reaching my preferred bitter level. :-) Other well known bitter drinks include Jagermeister, Peychaud's and Campari. Ok, so I'm crossing the line between remedies and something rather nice on the rocks... but hey. ;-)
- And on that theme, I've been told that a little Swedish Bitters can help one sober up after a drink too many (not that I'd know of course)
- An orange, gentian and cinnamon bitters recipe
- Some absinthe recipes containing wormwood :-)
- And a clementine bitters recipe (without the sugar I guess to get the real bitter benefit)
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