Explore and cook with the bountiful benefits of bitter herbs.
In the early 1500s, Venetian monk Dom Bernardo Vincelli discovered an elixir to revive his fellow clerics. Vincelli even claimed the drink cured local French fishermen and peasants of malaria. As it turns out, Vincelli was onto something: This delicious beverage, which we now know as the liqueur Benedictine, contains 27 herbs and spices, among them lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), arnica (Arnica spp.), hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) and angelica root (Angelica archangelica).
Throughout history, humans have enjoyed the combination of herbs and alcohol to cure ailments as well as to please the palate. Though they don’t get a lot of press these days — perhaps because their name sounds less-than-appealing to contemporary taste buds — bitters still offer much as medicine and as a flavorful addition to the sophisticated cook’s toolbox.
Before Imodium, and even before Alka-Seltzer, digestives were spirited drinks concocted with herbs to aid digestion. Historically, the most popular digestives, or digestifs, have been alcoholic bitters, which usually include angostura bark (Angostura trifoliata), cinchona (or quinine) bark (Cinchona spp.), bitter gentian root (Gentiana lutea) and/or quassia chips (Quassia amara) as the principal components. Bitters, as defined by Dick Brisbane in his Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes in 1872 (at the height of bitters’ popularity), “are considered as tonic and stomachic, and to improve the appetite when taken in moderation. The best time is early in the morning, or an hour before meals. An excessive use of bitters tends to weaken the stomach. They should not be taken for a longer period than a fortnight at one time, allowing a similar period to elapse before again having recourse to them.”
The majority of bitters on the market today come from Europe. The small country of Trinidad gives us Angostura, probably the most popular of all the bitters. The United States has Peychaud’s Bitters, made by the Sazerac Co. in New Orleans. Most bitters are not drunk by themselves but rather mixed with cocktails and nonalcoholic beverages to add zest. Some people even cook with them to add that Je ne sais quoi!
Commercially available bitters are distinguished from medicinal bitters, which are really theriacs. Theriacs originated from the beginning of the third century b.c., perhaps associated with the Alexandrian School. Originally formulated to counteract the bites of venomous creatures, theriacs became general antidotes for poisons, venoms or ailments. The most popular theriac today is Swedish bitters, composed of (in one commercial recipe we examined) senna (Senna alexandrina) leaves, angelica root, aloe (Aloe vera), marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) and several other herbs.
On July 16, 1885, Dr. Augustin Thompson of Lowell, Massachusetts, trademarked Moxie as a carbonated soft drink. The label accompanying the trademark filing noted:
Moxie Nerve Food has not a drop of Medicine, Poison, Stimulant or Alcohol in its composition, but is a simple starchy plant grown in South America and the only positive nerve food known that can recover brain and nervous exhaustion, and loss of manhood, at once, unaided. It has cured paralysis, softening of the brain and mental imbecility. It gives a durable, solid strength and makes you eat voraciously. The tired, sleepy, lifeless feeling disappears like magic. Will not interfere with the action of vegetable medicines. Dose a wineglassful four times a day.
With the proliferation of mislabeling, false advertising, filth in manufacturing and unregulated use of potential poisons, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which was then called the Bureau of Chemistry, presented to Congress the Federal Food and Drugs Act, passed in 1906. Subsequently, Moxie was marketed exclusively as a delicious and refreshing drink.
Thompson issued several versions of a story that a “Lieut. Moxie” observed natives in South America drinking a decoction of “a starchy plant much like our asparagus,” but Lieut. Moxie seems to have never existed. Maine has Moxie Lake and Moxie Pond, both apparently derived from an Indian word meaning “dark water.” Alternatively, the Algonquin word maski, meaning “medicine,” may have inspired Thompson.
Moxie was so popular that it became part of the president’s English, meaning “energy” or “courage.” Until the 1920s, Moxie outsold Coca-Cola, but vacillating sugar prices, changing tastes and the Great Depression all cut into its market. Moxie continues today as the “oldest continually sold commercially marketed carbonated drink” in the United States. The rights to Moxie are owned by Monarch Beverages in Atlanta (which also owns rights to Dad’s Root Beer). Sales of Moxie are concentrated in New England, particularly Maine. Look for the distinctive orange label.
Moxie originally was made with bitter gentian root, cinchona, sassafras (Sassafras albidum) and wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), but since the FDA banned sassafras in 1960, it has been eliminated from the formula. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge were two of Moxie’s most famous advocates. The original posters had advertising slogans that encouraged “LEARN to Drink Moxie.” Free Moxie candy was even distributed to encourage consumption of the beverage.
Herbal sleuthing isn’t just for fictional ex-lawyer and herb shop proprietor China Bayles (the subject of a series of mystery books by herb enthusiast Susan Wittig Albert). In fact, the more herb enthusiasts we meet, the more we realize that most of us have an investigative nature. After all, we have the nose in common — following a scent in one way or another.
Angostura bitters was a recent case, and we had to put on our detective hats more than once to solve the mystery of just which member of the Gentianaceae family is used in this secret formula. Why, we even had to pull out our magnifying glasses à la Sherlock Holmes just to read the label on the bottle. Extracting information on the extracts proved to be another dead end.
Starting at the source, upon first inquiry at Angostura International in New Jersey, Susan spoke to the vice president of the company, Jerry Bongiovanni. He answered a few of her questions and gave her some history, but he couldn’t answer our burning botanical questions, especially because the recipe for Angostura bitters is secret. He suggested Susan call the company in Trinidad, where the bitters are produced. Bongiovanni did, however, give Susan a few tips on how he and his family use bitters, which we found fascinating. His favorite use is on top of vanilla ice cream. Susan noted this suggestion with some skepticism and queried further. Bongiovanni’s son, a chef, uses it in diet sodas to mask the aspartame flavor and aftertaste. His daughter, who has an intolerance for highly acidic food, puts a few drops of bitters in her orange juice.
So, Susan called the company in Trinidad. After some determination, Susan was turned over to the laboratory. It seemed like everyone she spoke to was not forthcoming with information. Might they think she was on some sort of espionage mission? One of the chemists told her to please fax her questions to him and he would see to it that they would be answered, if possible. (By the way, his favorite use of bitters was on vanilla ice cream, too.)
Susan sent her fax — a list of 13 questions — along with a letter of intent and a statement that she wasn’t after their secret formula. Chief chemist Vidia Doodnath replied to her fax with five answers. However, Susan’s leading question, “Was the gentian used in their product Gentiana lutea?” was not answered. From our research in herbal texts, plant sources and cookbooks, as well as the public library system, we found that there are about 400 species of gentian. All of the material suggested G. lutea was the herb we were after, but Angostura International wouldn’t confirm this. In delving further into the literature, we found that the suspected G. lutea was indeed the species used.
The formula for Angostura bitters has been kept a secret; and how it works, the company claims, is a mystery. The bitter flavor is derived from gentian root and other extracts. One of our published sources reports that some of the principal flavoring ingredients are cinnamon, clove, lemon peel, bitter orange peel, galangal, gingerroot and tonka beans. These extracts, when combined with distilled water, alcohol and lots of sugar, help to tame the bitterness of the gentian root.
The stereotypical gentian is a rather small alpine plant with a bell-shaped blue flower and small, linear leaves. Bitter (or yellow) gentian, Gentiana lutea, in contrast, has yellow flowers with petals cut to the base; the leaves are ribbed, large and strap-like; and it grows to more than 6 feet when blooming.
Bitter gentian is harvested from wild plants in France, Spain and the Balkans. Small-scale plantations also exist in France and Germany (where bitter gentian is protected). Little has been published on the cultivation of bitter gentian, but Mary Bartlett writes in Gentians (Blandford, 1981), “Moist meadows and mountain slopes form this plant’s natural habitat, particularly non-calcareous and unmanured soils. In the garden, it grows best in deep, moist, well-drained borders — it is too large for the rock garden. Like other moist meadow plants it requires full sun to survive. Propagation by seed is best, as the large, deep roots do not divide or transplant well.”
Bitters are an acquired taste but so is a preference for Guinness stout beer or Lapsang Souchong tea. The use of bitters to promote digestive health dates back more than 2,000 years to the Greek physician Dioscorides, and perhaps even further.
French research has shown that bitter gentian extract has strong antioxidative activity in vitro. Japanese researchers found that gentiopicroside (a secoiridoid glucoside isolated from G. lutea) displays some anti-leukemia activity in mice and inhibits the growth of Staphyllococcus aureus bacteria. Quassia extracts exhibit both antiviral and anti-leukemic activity. Cinchona extracts have some antibacterial, antifungal and anti-tumor activity. The alkaloids from angostura bark also display activity against Mycobacterium tuberculosis.
Art Tucker, Ph.D., botanist at Delaware State University, is the co-author of The Big Book of Herbs (Interweave, 2000). Susan Belsinger is a culinary herbalist, food writer and photographer who has co-authored several cookbooks and writes for many national magazines.
Where to Buy Bitters
10 Mountain Springs Pkwy.
Springville, UT 84663
Digestion Formula capsules
125 McPherson St.
Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Ginger Bitters tincture
Woodland Natural Remedies
Swedish bitters tincture
Sit in on dozens of practical workshops from the leading authorities on natural health, organic gardening, real food and more!LEARN MORE