The poor relation, bitter loses out to easy to please sweet, robust salt and even mean and lean sour. But as cooks are we also losing out by not consciously including bitter in our dishes? Is being bitter really such a crime?
‘Delicious, this is really bitter.’ Why does that sound so wrong? The other tastes don’t get such a bad press. No one curls up their lip at the phrase ‘lovely and sweet’ or a proffered salty crisp or even the prospect of a salvia-smacking sour grapefruit segment, but bitter never raises a smile.
Of course, the palate does have a natural aversion to bitter, because this is how many poisons taste, as do many medicines. For example quinine, used to treat malaria, is also a flavour component of tonic water and bitter lemon. But if we ignore the potential of bitter are we missing a culinary trick?
I have a recipe from the Cantinetta Antinori in Florence, a restaurant which always receives rave reviews, for crostini cavalo nero, or black cabbage on toast. I have never cooked it. Partially because I suspect it is a dish that needs to be tried in situ and would get lost in translation away from Tuscany, but also such a show of bitterness seems less than appealing compared with say sweet tomato or salty cheese or even tangy leaves laced with vinaigrette.
Still there are plenty of home grown examples where bitter is an essential component to a dish: bitter/sweet Oxford marmalade, carrot and walnut cake, endive salad with Roquefort and walnuts. But these are ‘homeopathic’ portions; they tease the bitter appreciating papillae on the tongue without causing them alarm. Even bitter dark chocolate with 70% cocoa solids is off set with fats and sweeteners and a few hardy souls may knock back a sugar-free espresso but most of us succumb to a cube of sugar, milk or diluting hot water rather than take a shot unadulterated.
But as a cook I can’t help but wonder if I shouldn’t be making a more conscious effort to include bitter flavours into my repertoire. After all as a wine lover one of my favourite grape varieties is Chenin Blanc which comes in many styles but even in its dessert wine guise it usually distinguishes itself with a bitter taste of pithy grapefruit. Fish Hoek, Chenin Blanc 2007 from the Western Cape (£6.99 in Tesco) is a good example and if you would like to upscale then Jacky Blot, Domaine de la Taille aux Loups, Remus, Montlouis Sec, Loire, 2006 at £101.52 for six bottles on www.everywine.co.uk is fantastic.
So should I come out and proclaim: I love bitter! Surely it is better to be a maverick than ignore one of the most exciting primary tastes? To live with meals only three-quarters enjoyed? Yes! I will no longer neglect my bitter taste buds. They will no longer cry out for attention only to be chastised with a spoon of medicine. I shall include radicchio and endives in my salads, I will braise brassicaceae, add coffee grinds to anything that they might possibly enhance, I will make bitter chocolate sauces and serve them with roast meats but will I make cabbage on toast for lunch? No. That one will have to wait for a visit to Tuscany. After all if it all goes wrong it could leave a worryingly bitter taste in my mouth.
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