I find the history of food and drinks fascinating. Take bitter foods for example. Nowadays despised as unappetizing, throughout the history bitters were used as tonics, digestive and metabolic aids, as well as an anti-inflammatory medicinals. Egyptian priests used bitters in food, rolled into medicinal pills, or mixed in wine. The monks throughout the Middle Ages planted or foraged rue, tansy, wormwood or dandelion to develop formulas to treat the population.
How Do Bitters Help Digestion?
When taste buds on the tongue detect bitterness, a message is transmitted to the vagus nerve to report an instinctive possible toxic invasion to the central nervous system. To help relieve the body of this possible danger, the gut receives this message and starts to increase the stomach flow of enzymes. This process helps break down proteins to aid in extracting nutrients from food. The next stage is instructing the liver and gall bladder to increase the bile in the system to handle the digestion of fats and oils. The liver and pancreas increase their enzymes to handle a high intake of calories. This results in a more steady release of blood glucose, which enhances energy levels. The last organ of bitter influence is on the colon. The colon is helped to promote regular bowel movements needed to excrete toxins and waste efficiently.[source]
History of Bitters
As mentioned previously, history of bitters can be traced back to Egyptians and possibly beyond. In the Middle ages, monasteries would use a variety of local herbs to make their medicines. Plants would be dried and steeped in alcohol to extract and preserve their medicinal properties.
Bitters were widely available in pharmacies in the 18th and 19th centuries. In many countries, drinking bitters as an aperitif or a digestive is still common. In Germany bitters are known as Kräuterlikör – ‘herb liqour’, in Switzerland they have Alpenbitter as many of the plants are gathered from the mountains, and in Italy they are known simply as amari – ‘bitters’.
Composition of Bitters
The bitterness can be derived from many different roots, leaves and barks. One of the most commonly used bittering agents is the root of yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea) that grows in the mountains of central and southern Europe (and used in a digestive liquor in my home country, Slovakia). Other plants with subterranean parts that lend themselves to bitters include chicory, often used as a coffee substitute, dandelion and burdock, originally taken together as a spring tonic, and angelica, an important component of gin and other spirits. Barks are often bitter, but also contain chemicals called tannins that give astringency, the effect of tightening tissues that in small amounts adds an interesting sensation to a blend – this is why wine is aged in oak barrels. All the barks that have been used in bitters have a history of medicinal use, such cinchona bark for treating malaria, willow bark for treating arthritis, and oak bark for treating sore throat. Added to the fundamental bitter elements were a wide range of medicinal plants. These were often aromatic spices, such as fennel, cinnamon, aniseed, angelica and cardamom. [source]
Homemade Bitters Recipe
50 % bitter-flavored ingredients: citrus peels such as lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit, roots such as liquorice root, dandelion root, turmeric root, ginger root, angelica root, artichoke leaf, barberry root, black walnut leaf, burdock root, calamus root, cinchona bark, devil’s club root, gentian root, horehound, licorice root, mugwort, Oregon grape root, orris root, quassia bark, sarsaparilla, wild cherry bark, and wormwood.
50 % aromatic ingredients: spices: allspice, aniseed (anise), caraway, cardamom, celery seed, chillies, cinnamon, cloves, coriander seeds, fennel, ground ginger, juniper berries, nutmeg, peppercorns, star anise, vanilla pods Herbs and flowers: chamomile, hibiscus, hops, lavender, lemongrass, mint, rose, rosemary, sage, thyme
100 or 90 proof alcohol (50 percent/43 percent alcohol depending on alcohol used). I use vodka or alcohol for fruit.
1. Chop your chosen ingredients, or coarsely grind or crack them, to expose more surface area for infusion. Put them into a large, sterilized glass jar.
2. Let steep in alcohol for up to 6 weeks in a dark room.
3. Enjoy as aperitif or digestive.