Susan Belsinger, herbal author and kind reader of the Medicine Woman’s Roots has graciously contributed a guest post to my blog for this month’s blogparty. This interesting and informative article even includes a good many recipes for using bitters in tasty recipes.
Bitters, Beverages with Moxie
Arthur O. Tucker
Many of our pre- and post-prandial tipples have a long, distinguished history as herb mixtures to cure ailments. For example, Benedictine dates from about 1510, when the Dom Bernardo Vincelli at Fécamp, France discovered an “elixir” to revive tired Benedictine monks, and he even claimed that it cured local fishermen and peasants of malaria. We know that Benedictine today contains lemon balm, arnica, hyssop, maidenhair fern, vanilla, cinnamon, myrrh, coriander, nutmeg, cardamom, “artemisia,” pine cone, angelica root, aloe, mace, saffron, and grain seeds.
Digestives & Bitters
Even before Imodium®, and even before Alka-Seltzer®, digestives (digestifs) were concocted with herbs to aid in digestion. The most popular digestives were alcoholic bitters, which usually included angostura bark [Angostura trifoliata (Willd.) T. S. Elias, alias Galipea officinalis Hancock], cinchona (quinine) bark (Cinchona spp.), bitter gentian root (Gentiana lutea L.), and/or quassia chips (Quassia amara L.) as the principal component(s). Bitters, as defined by Dick in his Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes in 1872 (at the height of the popularity of bitters) “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.” Today, among the many bitters on the market, the Czech Republic gives us Becherovka; France gives us Amer Picon, Dubonnet, Punt è Mes, and Suze; Germany gives us Underberg; Hungary gives us Unicum; Italy gives us Amaro Montenegro, Campari, Cynar, Ramazotti Amaro, and Fernet-Branca; Denmark gives us Gammel Dansk; the Netherlands give us Boonekamp; and Trinidad gives us Angostura. The United States used to have Abbott’s Aged Bitters, which were made by C. W. Abbott & Co. in Baltimore, Maryland 1865-ca. 1956, but we still have Peychaud’s Bitters, which are made by the Sazerac Co. in New Orleans. Many of these are not drunk by themselves but rather mixed with cocktails and non-alcoholic beverages to add zest. Some people even cook with them (see Recipes) to add that Je ne sais quoi!
These bitters or digestives 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, which are composed of (in one commercial recipe that we examined): senna leaves, angelica root, saffron, camphor, myrrh, medicinal rhubarb, aloe, carline thistle, zedoary root, mace, sugar, calamus, fraxinella, marshmallow, tomentilla, purging agaric, English walnut hulls, and burnet saxifrage. This recipe also had an envelope labeled “terra pip.,” a clay, and a black block labeled “theriak” that appeared to be raw opium!
“You got moxie, kid” (The Sting, Universal Studios, 1973)
“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.”
Other elaborate claims were made for bitters in the 19th century. For example, The Book of Health by Robertson and Wilcox in 1843 says of their wine bitters formulated after Dr. John Thomson: “The wine bitters are a very pleasant restorative for debilitated people and convalescents. Very useful in dyspepsia, sick-headache, heart-burn, sinking, torpid feelings, and when-ever a tonic is required.” With the proliferation of mislabeling, false advertising, filth in manufacturing, and unregulated use of potential poisons, the FDA (then called the “Bureau of Chemistry” under the USDA) presented to Congress the Federal Food and Drugs Act, passed in 1906. Subsequently, Moxie was marketed exclusively as a delicious and refreshing drink.
Dr. 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, Moxie Pond, etc., all apparently derived from an Indian word meaning “dark water.” Alternatively, the Algonquin word “maski,” meaning medicine, may have inspired Dr. Thompson. Moxie was so popular that it became part of the President’s English, meaning energy or courage. Until the 1920’s, Moxie outsold Coca-Cola, but vacillating sugar prices, changing tastes, and the Great Depression all cut in to the market for Moxie. Moxie continues today as America’s “oldest continually sold commercially marketed carbonated drink.” The rights to Moxie are owned by the Armstrong family of Monarch Beverages, Atlanta, Georgia (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!
Herbal sleuthing isn’t just for China Bayles, 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.
Starting at the source, upon first inquiry at Angostura International in New Jersey, the secretary transferred Susan to the vice president of the company, Jerry Bongiovanni. Jerry answered a few of her questions, and gave her some history, but he couldn’t answer our burning botanical questions, especially since the recipe for Angostura bitters is secret, and so he suggested that Susan call Trinidad, which is where bitters are produced. He did however give Susan a few tips on how he and his family use bitters, which we found fascinating. Number one use, Jerry’s favorite is on top of vanilla ice cream! Susan noted this suggestion with some skepticism and queried further. His son who is a chef uses it in diet sodas to mask the Nutrasweet (aspartame) flavor and aftertaste. His daughter who has an intolerance for highly acid food, puts a few drops of bitters in her orange juice. A good detective saves every clue—we filed every morsel of this culinary data—and savored it later on.
Susan called Trinidad and asked for publicity as per instructed; she believes she baffled them. After some determination Susan was turned over to the laboratory. It seemed like everyone that she spoke to was guarded, 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).
Chief chemist Vidia Doodnath replied to her FAX with five answers. Approximately 160,000 cases of Angostura bitters are bottled annually. Gentian root is obtained from Europe. There have been slight modifications in the original recipe used. The extracted flavors are left to stand for more than three months before further processing. This process goes on throughout the year. The manufacture of bitters was started in Trinidad when Dr. Seigert had to leave Venezuela because of the civil war there. Susan also requested and was given permission to reprint the label from the Angostura bitters bottle, and Sra. Doodnath FAX’d copies of both the local label from Trinidad and the USA label to her.
However, Susan’s leading question, which she asked back in New Jersey and to the West Indies, “Was the gentian used in their product Gentiana lutea?” was not answered. From our research in all of our 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 that G. lutea was the herb we were after, but Angostura International wouldn’t confirm this. As Susan explained in her letter of intent, she was writing this article for an herb magazine and needed plant specifics—she had to persist in finding the facts.
Susan was lamenting about this elusive information to an herbal cohort of ours, who just happened to have been an investigative reporter early in his life. You tell this guy “No” or “You can’t” and he’s on the case like a bloodhound. His voice became excited and he started giving me all kinds of advice on how to sniff out sources and find leads. In delving further into the literature, we found that the suspected G. lutea was indeed the species used in making bitters.
Angostura was also the name of a city in Venezuela, which was renamed Ciudad Bolivar in 1846. Dr. Johann G.B. Siegert was a young army surgeon when he went to Venezuela and was appointed Surgeon General of the military hospital in Guyana by Simon Bolivar. It was there, after four years of research and experiments with the tropical herbs of his new country, that he developed the formula for bitters in 1824. Known then as Dr. Siegert’s aromatic bitters, as it became more widely recognized, he renamed it Angostura aromatic bitters after the town in which he lived.
Angostura is also the name of a wild tree from Venezuela, sometimes called cusparia, and a tincture made from the bark is used as a bitter tonic, an antidiarrheal and febrifuge. Angostura bitters are made without any angostura bark whatsoever.
The formula for Dr. Siegert’s 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 and bitter orange peel, galangal, ginger root, 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 with a bell-shaped blue flower and rather small, linear leaves. Bitter or yellow gentian, Gentiana lutea L., in contrast, has yellow flowers with petals cut to the base; the leaves are ribbed, large and strap-like; and it grows to over 6 feet when blooming. At the table of polite, sophisticated gentians, bitter gentian is that rather coarse buffoon from the country!
In spite of the coarseness of bitter gentian, we value it for its roots, which are loaded with seco-iridoids. The bitterness of these compounds is defined as the reciprocal value of the dilution of an extract still found bitter. The principal bitter compound is amarogentin (bitterness 58,000,000), but the roots also contain gentiopicriside (bitterness 12,000). Gentian root extract is considered GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) at 71.80 ppm in nonalcoholic beverages to 199.2 ppm in alcoholic beverages.
To Bitter or Not to Bitter?
Bitters are an acquired taste, but so is a preference for Guinness Irish Stout beer! The use of bitters to promote digestive health dates back over 2000 years to the Greek physician Dioscorides, and perhaps even further. A group in France lead by Claude-Alain Calliste has found that that bitter gentian extract shows strong hydroxyl scavenging activity in vitro. Another group in Japan lead by Kyoko Isiguro found that gentiopicroside displays some anti-leukemia activity in mice and inhibits the growth of Staphyllococcus aureus. Quassia extracts exhibit both antiviral and antileukemic activity. Cinchona extracts have some antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-tumor activity. The alkaloids from angostura bark also display activity against Mycobacterium tuberculosis.
In the U.S., colorectal cancers are the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancers and rank second among cancer deaths. It is hoped that further research will shed light on whether bitters may help in lowering this statistic!
by Susan Belsinger
All of this fact-finding began because I like bitters and I use them in cooking on a regular basis. I feel that bitters enhance the flavors of certain foods. Many years ago, I took a cooking class with the French chef and cookbook author Madelaine Kamman. Along with her kitchen politics, Madelaine gave us a tidbit of advice that I have put in many a pot. Madelaine tasted the soup that she was cooking, held up a little bottle of Angostura bitters and said something to the effect of, “If what you are cooking tastes like it needs a little something else, add some of these.” Following her recommendation, I went out and bought a bottle of bitters and has been enjoying them ever since.
Nonetheless, the suggestion of sprinkling Angostura bitters on our ice cream did raise my eyebrow, but hey, for the sake of research I was willing to experiment. Three drops of bitters on one scoop of vanilla ice cream. Hmmm, I could barely taste them and what was that flavor reminding us of? A few more dashes and we surmised that the taste was vaguely reminiscent of eggnog. How could that be? I found that we needed a drop for each bite to be sure of what we were tasting—well why not? Brandy has a harshness like bitters, though not as strong, there are spices in eggnog and spice extracts in the Angostura. I concluded that this was indeed a good flavor combination, bitter and sweet; and I would recommend trying this experiment.
The reason that the ice cream/ bitters combination works is because one is sweet and the other is bitter, and these opposites compliment one another. Bitterness is a large part of taste, but our bitter tastebuds are underdeveloped. On our tongues, we have the sensory traits for tasting sweet, sour, salt, and bitter. Most of us have overdeveloped our tastes for sweet and salt, we use and enjoy some sour, but use very little bitter. By adding bitter and/or sour tastes to a dish or menu, your palate will be better balanced. This will give you new taste sensations, stimulate your palate and appetite, as well as give you a new awareness of flavor.
I find when a sauce, soup, dressing, or a pot of beans need “a little something”, a few drops of bitters usually does the trick, but too much is reminiscent of cough syrup. Since bitters are a strong flavoring agent, you might want to use just a dash or two to begin with. A teaspoon will give you a strong flavor—so don’t use too much—you can always add more. I especially like the taste of bitters in beans; I rarely make a pot without adding bitters and they always go in bean soup. Soups and stews improve in flavor when bitters are added towards the end of cooking. The aromatic properties of bitters enhance dressings, sauces, and dips, especially those that are mayonnaise and dairy-based. Deviled eggs, egg, potato, chicken, or tuna salad, bean or vegetable dips with sour cream, herb or vegetable cream cheese spreads, white or cheese sauces, and marinades are all enhanced by a few dashes of bitters.
These aromatic bitters are well-known to bartenders throughout the world, since they are used to mellow or add tang to the Manhattan, Old-Fashioned, many aperitifs and cocktails, especially rum drinks. A few dashes of bitters in soda or seltzer water quenches the thirst and improves the appetite. Bitters are being used more and more in the food industry to add flavor to foods. They are being used in soups, sauces, gravies, puddings, dairy products, and baked goods.
In my investigative mode, I’ve tried bitters on ice cream (best on vanilla), in my orange juice, pineapple juice, tomato juice, lemonade, beer, tomato sauce, tomato soup, gazpacho, potato soup, and straight off the palm of my hand. I liked them all. Tasting it straight, upon first split second of taste the Angostura bitters taste sweet, before the bitter takes over. I’ve actually come to enjoy about six to eight drops in soda water over ice for a drink to quench the thirst. I also drink this quite often in the evening (without the ice) as a nightcap especially if I have eaten late, or too much. Here are a few old tried and true recipes using bitters and a few new ones inspired by my recent findings. I hope that I have tantalized your tastebuds so that you’ll try taking the bitter with the sweet.
Rupert’s Rum Punch
When I visited Jamaica many years ago, I stayed at a memorable place called Scotch on the Rocks. The house came with a cook named Wilby, and her husband took care of the garden and made a batch of this rum punch everyday. While teaching me how to prepare this libation, he told me that this is a medicinal drink and that using the bitters would prevent a hangover. So far it has worked. Using Wray & Nephew 126 Overproof rum gives this drink a special flavor. It is unlike any rum that I have ever tasted. It is worthwhile to seek it out–I have my local liquor store order it for me. You can substitute any other overproof rum or even a dark rum of good quality. At first taste the bitters seem heavy, but the flavors will mellow on the palate after a few sips; if you are new to bitters, perhaps you should use about half the amount called for. You can always add a few more drops. You can use orange juice and limeade made from frozen concentrate, but it won’t have the same fresh taste.
Makes 6 to 8 drinks
In a large pitcher, combine the orange juice, limeade, rum, and Grenadine and stir well. Shake in the lesser amount of bitters, stir well and taste. Add the rest of the bitters if desired. Refrigerate the punch until ready to serve. It can be made in the morning and refrigerated all day.
Fill pretty glasses with ice, pour the rum punch over the ice and garnish the glass with a slice of lime. Add a splash of soda water to each glass, if desired, and stir. Serve immediately and think of the sun setting over the Caribbean.
Quick Black Beans
These beans are good to prepare when you are hungry and don’t have a lot of time. Serve them as a side dish, over nachos, or roll them up in soft tacos or burritos with some grated cheddar.
15 ounce can of black beans or 2 cups cooked black beans with some liquid
Heat the oil in a sauté pan over medium heat and sauté the onion and chiles for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic, stir and cook for another minute. Add the beans, cumin, and the smaller amount of bitters and stir. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat and cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Taste for seasoning; add a few more dashes of bitters or a little salt, if necessary.
Sesame Garlic Twists
These tasty twists disappear quickly, so make a double batch if you are having a crowd. Serve them as an appetizer with cocktails or as an accompaniment to soup or salad, or just as a snack.
Serves 4; makes about 30 twists
1 cup unbleached flour
In a food processor, combine the unbleached and whole-wheat flours with the salt and pulse to mix. Add the butter pieces and process until it is a coarse meal. With the motor running, add the water and process until it just starts to come together.
Turn the dough out and knead until it comes together, gathering up all the little pieces. Flatten the dough into a round and wrap in plastic; refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or up to 24 hours.
Preheat oven to 400 F and lightly butter 2 baking sheets.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator; if it is hard let it stand at room temperature for a few minutes. Lightly flour a work surface and roll the dough out with a rolling pin until it is less than 1/4-inch thick.
Press the garlic through a press onto the dough and spread it around evenly. Sprinkle the dough with 2 teaspoons of the sesame seeds. Fold half of the dough over the other half to form a semi-circle sandwiching the garlic and sesame seeds in between. Roll the dough out until it is about 1/8-inch thick into a rectangle about 9 or 10 by 12-inches.
Add the remaining sesame seeds and the bitters to the melted butter and stir well. Brush the butter mixture over the dough. Sprinkle the kosher salt evenly over the dough. Using a pizza cutter or a sharp knife, cut the dough into 1/4-inch strips, about 9 or 10-inches long.
As you transfer the strips to the baking sheets, hold them by each end and twist them a few times. Place the twists on the baking sheets, pressing down each end so that they don’t untwist.
Bake the twists in the center of a hot oven for 15 minutes, changing racks halfway through baking. Remove the twists from the oven when they are light golden brown and cool them on baking racks.
Three Bean Salad
This is a healthy, good-tasting salad to make all year round, but seems especially good in cold weather when we miss the fresh produce of summer. In season, use fresh green beans, but when they’re not available, make this with your home-canned beans or use frozen ones.
About 1 pound topped and tailed green beans, cut into 1 1/2-inch lengths
Cook the green beans in lightly salted boiling water until crisp tender; about 3 to 6 minutes depending on the beans. Drain them. Rinse and drain the chickpeas and kidney beans if they are canned, drain them otherwise. Combine all of the beans in a bowl, add the onion and toss well.
In a small bowl, make the vinaigrette. Combine the oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, sugar, garlic, savory, and bitters and stir well with a fork. Pour the dressing over the beans and toss them well. Taste for seasoning and adjust with a little more vinegar, bitters, salt, or pepper.
The salad can be served immediately, but it is best if allowed to stand at room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes. After this time stir and taste for seasoning. If prepared ahead, refrigerate and allow to come to cool room temperature before serving.
Cole Slaw with Bitters
There is nothing better to accompany a bowl of baked beans and hot corn bread, than a creamy, yet tangy slaw. Use a small, firm, fresh cabbage to make this tasty salad, bitters give a whole new taste to slaw.
About 1 1/4 pound cabbage, cored and thinly shredded
In a large bowl, combine the cabbage, carrots, and bell pepper; sprinkle lightly with salt and toss well.
In the blender or food processor, combine the onion, dill, mayonnaise, sour half-and-half, yogurt, mustard, paprika, bitters, and sugar and process until smooth.
Pour the dressing over the vegetables and toss well. You can taste for seasoning at this point, but it is best to refrigerate for at least an hour and then taste for seasoning.
Refrigerate the slaw for at least an hour before serving; it can be made in advance. Taste for seasoning and adjust with salt, mayonnaise, paprika, sugar or vinegar. Let stand at room temperature for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
Vanilla Flan with Bitters
I was inspired to make this vanilla-scented flan with bitters, after I tasted vanilla ice cream with Angostura bitters sprinkled on top. I found it to be a pleasant flavor combination. This smooth flan is complimented by the bittersweet caramel. Making caramel is quite a simple process, but you need to take care when working with hot caramel because it can stick and burn.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place 8 ramekins or custard cups in a pan large enough to hold them.
The caramel will continue to cook in the pan for another minute, so remove the pan from heat, place the pan in the sink, and stir for about 30 seconds. When liquid is added to hot caramel it will foam up, so carefully stir in 1/4 teaspoon of the bitters.
Pour the milk into a nonreactive saucepan and heat over medium heat until hot, but do not scald or boil. Remove from heat and add the remaining 1/2 cup sugar and whisk to dissolve. In a small bowl, beat the eggs and add about a cup of the hot milk to the eggs, whisking well. Add the egg mixture to the hot milk and whisk well. Stir in the vanilla, remaining bitters, and salt.
Pour the flan mixture into the prepared molds and place them in the pan that will hold them. Pour enough hot water in the pan so that it is at least an inch deep. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
When ready to serve, run a knife around the edge of the molds and invert onto individual serving plates. If the flan is not letting go of the mold, let it sit out for a few minutes, or you can hold the mold in warm water for 30 to 60 seconds.
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