Do Be Bitter

by Sandy Swegel

One doesn’t often go to a plant lecture and find oneself roaring with laughter, but that’s what happened this month when I went to see Amy Stewart at the Denver Botanic Gardens.  She is a gifted and entertaining writer and her stories about her latest book, The Drunken Botanist, could put her on the late night stand-up comedy stage.  You probably recognize Stewart’s name from previous books on earthworms (The Earth Moved) and flowers (Flower Confidential).  The Drunken Botanist is about the botanical origins of our favorite alcohol beverages. Many of her side stories are about plants as flavorings and medicines and I was intrigued by many of her ideas about bitters.

Bitter flavors and foods are coming back into favor after our long consumptive love affair with sugar.  Sweet is great, but bitter flavors stimulate the digestive system and offer depth and intensity to our foods and drinks.

Traditionally, we get our bitters at the beginning or the end of our meals. Amy Stewart starts her salads with an arugula-baby green mix and then adds leaves of other bitter greens and herbs to create a culinary digestive treat. Being a drunken botanist, she also likes to end her meals with bitter aperitifs like Campari or herbal liqueurs or drinks with Angostura bitters which are made from gentian root.

As you’re planning next year’s garden, be sure to include a range of bitters that are easy to grow. Chicory, dandelion, arugula, radicchio, and endive are excellent wildish greens that can be part of salads before meals.  Some bitter herbs you can snip into your salads include yarrow, rue, chamomile and peppermint. It may be just accidental, but many bitter leaves are also colorful (radicchio) or interestingly shaped (arugula). We must whet our appetite with our eyes as well as with bitter flavors.

In Amy’s honor, I served after-dinner drinks of soda water with splashes of bitter liquors. While toasting friends, I remembered that in another time, the enthusiastic toast “to your health” or “a votre sante” wasn’t just a good wish, but really described the medicinal benefit of a good bitter drink.

Amy Stewart’s webpage: http://drunkenbotanist.com/

If you want to learn more about the medicinal value of bitters as a digestive aid and even protector against diabetes and other illnesses, read the Weston Price Institute’s report.  http://www.westonaprice.org/basics/bitters-the-revival-of-a-forgotten-flavor

Photo credit http://the-bitter-truth.com/tag/jerry-thomas-bitters/ http://medcookingalaska.blogspot.com/2009/02/recipe-for-salad-of-bitter-greens-with.html

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