Bitterness is not a taste sensation that most people today go searching for, but in centuries past it was more readily recognized as an important aspect of the well-rounded palate. The ancients also used bitter herbs to enhance appetites and improve digestion. Commercial bitters formulas are still available in health-food stores for that purpose, but it’s easy enough to make your own.
• Recipe: Bitters Tonic
When the strong, acrid taste of a bitter herb hits taste buds, the brain signals the salivary glands to produce more saliva and the stomach to release more acid to help break down food. Bitters also stimulate the pancreas to secrete digestive enzymes and the liver to increase the flow of bile. Getting these juices flowing makes us feel hungry and, at the same time, better able to digest our food.
In addition, a bitter tonic can relieve bloating or gas after eating a meal high in protein or fat. Because stomach acid production tends to decrease as we age, bitters can be helpful for elderly people with sluggish digestion or people with sedentary habits. They also may alleviate the poor digestion that can accompany some diseases.
The custom of infusing wine with bitter herbs dates back to the indulgent Romans, who believed that bitters would quell indigestion due to overconsumption of food or alcoholic beverages. Bitters were popular in Victorian England: a nineteenth-century British physician, A. J. Paris, wrote at length of the “invigorating effects of slight bitters upon our stomach”. Bitters are still commonly used in Europe, where people can stop off at “bitters cafés” on their way home from work to socialize and prepare their digestive tracts for the evening meal.
Now, people usually take their bitters either brewed as a tea or steeped in vodka, whiskey, brandy, or wine, using either a single herb or a combination. The most important of the bitter herbs is gentian root, which is the basis of the bitters sold in grocery stores and used to flavor mixed drinks. Others include goldenseal rhizome, mugwort and wormwood leaves, bitter orange peel and lemon peel, angelica root, blessed thistle, centaury leaf, cascara sagrada, artichoke leaf, and devil’s-claw.