Saturday, 16 January 2010

7 interesting things to know about bitter herbs

This post is part of the UK Herbarium Blog Party on My Favourite Bitter herb.

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:
  1. 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?
  2. 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".
  3. Bitter tonics should not be taken continuously, but only from time-to-time as needed.
  4. 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!)
  5. 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.
  6. 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. ;-)
  7. 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)
I'm getting that "time to try out a new herby recipe" feeling - so I've earmarked a few recipes that look interesting:

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  1. excellent post elizabeth!
    thank you for sharing the info and the recipe links:) i need to do more with bitters! i know they are important but it is soooo hard to fight the sweet tooth! lol inspirational and i will share when i do make something bitter:) i do use chamomile and yarrow but need to try the more bitter herbs also i know! big herbal and honey hugs and thanks:)

  2. Great stuff, Elizabeth! Thanks for all the links to all the recipe ideas. Now that I have wormwood growing again (if it hasn't been killed by the bad weather!) I may try some.

  3. "crossing the line between remedies and something rather nice on the rocks" is a very fine thing to do (in moderation of course!). I made some bilberry tincture last year and it is fabulous over ice...
    I think I'll be trying some of those nice bitter aperitif recipes.


  4. Super post Elizabeth :) I started researching and sampling (for research purposes you understand lol) the digestifs in France last year, need more research methinks so will continue when we go back this year!

    Thanks for the recipe links, like the clementine bitter one, but I wouldn't like to add the sugar, it'd be more like a liqueur than a bitter tonic. Still that's the beauty of recipes, we can tweak and adapt them and make them our own.

    Can you share the recipe you use for making swedish bitters tincture?

    Hugs - D x

  5. Quite funny Swedish bitter never came into my mind as drinkable, because I remember my mum using it to cure her Panaritium (sorry don't know the English word for it, but here is a link:

    which might give you an idea.
    I remember how yellow and then dark brown her finger turned after every 'finger bath'. In those days every house had it's own Swedish bitter but now (after reading your great post) I guess the others used it to drink :-)

    Since I am from Austria it was also interesting to hear Maria Treben rediscovered this bitter (because as I said it was normal every house had it's self made Swedish bitter) but yes, her book may sure have contributed to popularize it.

    Thank you for the recipe links. I'm normally not a fan of mixing many herbs together, but I am curious enough and would like to try some of the absinthe and the orange, gentian, cinnamon. Sounds yummy.

  6. Love the fresh new look Elizabeth :) What happened to the comment I made about the Swedish Bitters post, did the Gremlins get it?

    Herby Hugs - D x

  7. Hello All,

    Thank you for all the lovely and interesting comments! The gremlins got them all... (the gremlin actually being me accidentally turning off comment notification - oops). But it was a nice surprise to suddenly get all your comments. :)

    Re, Swedish Bitters - Debs I actually used a herb mixture which I bought from Baldwins. I have been advised in the past that what is known as "small bitters" (which contains 11 herbs) rather than "large bitters" (which contains 21 herbs). Comparing what Baldwins sell to Maria Treben's "small bitters" recipe, it is missing three of the original herbs. I haven't looked into why this is - perhaps because of availability, or more recent safety information.

    It was interesting to hear that Swedish Bitters was a household regular when you were growing up. Maria Treben's certainly recommends it for a whole array of ailments in her book. Did your mother find it effective for the panaritium (I'm not sure what the English word is either, but I get the idea from the picture)?

    Thanks again everyone - a pleasure to blog party with you all! :-)

    Warm wishes,

  8. What a great post! I CRAVE bitter flavors and can't wait to puruse all th elinks & recipes.
    Will pop in again after I'm through.
    Have a great day!