Astringent and even slightly medicinal, bitter has a bit of a bad rap.
But as Chris Nuttall-Smith discovers while prepping a particularly complex and tart meal with cookbook author Jennifer McLagan, that’s undeserved – in fact, it’s perhaps the most sophisticated of tastes
At 9:40 a.m. one recent Monday, Jennifer McLagan handed me a shot glass and a bottle of Fernet-Branca. Fernet, as the Italian digestive liquor’s advocates call it, is flavoured with a secret blend of a few dozen herbs, roots, oils and flowers, including gentian. Gentian, according to Fernet’s manufacturer, contains “one of the most bitter substances known.”
I’d tried it before, years ago, and still remember the taste – like dandelion sap mixed with cigarette ash and stale-dated cough syrup. My eyes began watering in anticipation. I quickly took a slug and coughed. McLagan didn’t speak. She didn’t look entirely impressed.
McLagan is 60 and speaks with a soft Australian accent. She keeps her hair in a tidy bob and wears subtly red-framed metal glasses. You’d never peg her as one of the most prescient thinkers and authors in the hard-living world of professional cooking.
Now she pulled a tall, brown clay bottle from a cupboard, this one containing another, more bitter liquor, from Latvia, and poured out a splash. “Even a lot of people who like Fernet can’t stand it,” she said. It was as good as a dare. I grabbed the edge of the counter and took a sip. “Not bad,” I lied.
McLagan had promised to take me on a taste tour through the world of bitter this morning. She calls it the world’s most dangerous flavour. And the booze was only the beginning. I drained a glass of water, swishing it around my mouth as discreetly as I could.
McLagan’s first book, called Bones, was published in 2005 as a reaction to the rise of the boneless, skinless chicken breast; in our rush for convenience we’d abandoned the tastes and the textures of cooking and eating bone-in meats. Within a few years of Bones’ publication you could scarcely go to a restaurant without seeing whole roasted marrow bones on the tables. Fat, McLagan’s ode to the deliciousness and, yes, the healthfulness of animal fat, came out three years later. (“That one was about six years ahead of its time,” she says.)
2011’s Odd Bits celebrated animal hearts, livers, kidneys, hooves, lungs, tripe and other offal, lending not just momentum, but also many of the techniques and recipes that propelled the rise of North American nose-to-tail cooking.
Bitter, which will be released this week in Canada and the U.S., is perhaps her most difficult subject yet. “Bitter is a negative to most people,” she told me. “It’s a bad word in North America.” But it’s also the most complex and sophisticated of the tastes, the book argues – or as McLagan’s friend, the cook and author Naomi Duguid puts it in Bitter’s epigraph, “Bitter is the gatekeeper of adult taste.”
So maybe my response to the Fernet and that Latvian rotgut were a little childish. I had time to redeem myself. McLagan had laid out a pair of knobbly green bitter melons on her kitchen counter, as well as celery leaves, orange zest, walnuts, prunes marinated in black tea, a package of ground pork and a bottle of homemade tonic water. We were about to make a very bitter lunch.
Bitter was borne from McLagan’s remembrance of the grapefruit she used to eat for breakfast growing up in Melbourne, Australia. The grapefruit of McLagan’s childhood was white-fleshed and bitter – her mother used to sprinkle it with sugar to temper the taste. Bitter is a learned taste. You come to love it by experience.
“My experience with grapefruit gave me a positive attitude to bitter, and it became an important part of my flavour palate,” she writes.
Today most grapefruit is pink and sweet-tasting – the bitterness has been bred out of many popular varieties. In North America especially, we’ve forgotten how complex and interesting bitter foods can be.
McLagan studied politics and economics at university in Melbourne before moving to Paris and London in her early 20s, where she worked as a cook. She moved to Toronto in the early 1980s; she and her husband, a prop and special effects maker named Haralds Gaikis, have lived here for 33 winters, she says. McLagan worked as one of the city’s top food stylists until Bones’ publication. She’s been a full-time cookbook writer ever since.
The pair spend winters and summers in Ontario, spring and fall in Europe (they keep a small apartment in Paris). In Europe, bitterness never disappeared. In Italy, she’d drink Campari with soda and an orange slice, and the gently bitter digestives called amari. In France she’d eat bitter frisée salads with a poached egg and nubs of fatty bacon sprinkled on top.
She built bitter into her cooking. “Citrus zests, turnips, rapini, chicories and cardoons became some of my favourite tastes, and I found myself craving them,” she writes. When McLagan made caramel she’d cook the sugar until it began smoking – the heat breaks down sugar’s simple sweetness into a few hundred new molecules that taste sour, buttery, alcoholic, fruity, toasty, nutty and with enough cooking, complexly bitter. In North America, caramel was almost always one-note sweet.
That complexity is perhaps bitter’s greatest drawing power: Unlike sweet, sour or salty, which are simple, easily describable sensations, bitter comes in myriad flavours and textures, from astringent to burnt-tasting to herbal-medicinal, and nearly every person experiences them in a different way. “Thousands of different compounds in foods elicit a bitter response,” McLagan writes.
In her kitchen that morning, we started with something simple, a bowl of prunes chilled in a bath of strong black tea and orange peel. The sweetness of the fruit, the tannins and astringency of the tea and the bitter-floral oils of the orange played off each other, so that no one flavour spun out of balance.
McLagan roasted celery stalks until they were crisp and caramelized, subtly bitter and sweet at the same time, with tarragon thrown in for a layer of anise.
Before lunch, she handed me another glass. She’d mixed some gin with an orange-coloured tonic she’d made the week earlier. Her recipe calls for allspice, star anise, lemongrass, citrus zest and juice, peppercorns, powdered cinchona bark from the tropics, salt … The sensation of drinking homemade tonic water after a lifetime of the store stuff was like seeing a full-colour movie for the first time after being stuck all my life with black and white.
“In the kitchen, eschewing bitter is like cooking without salt, or eating without looking,” McLagan writes. I’d hardly been a bitter-avoider until then – I’d even begun seeking it out in green vegetables and chocolate, especially – but clearly I hadn’t also fully embraced its possibilities.
Bitter is filled with recipes for arugula and prosciutto pizza, caramel ice cream, pumpkin-radicchio risotto and a pretty spectacular looking grapefruit tart – hardly what you’d call double-dare dishes.
She uses bitterness as a team player, as a way to temper salt, spice or sweetness, or to mellow the decadence of fat. “As soon as you put fat with bitter – maybe that’s why I did this book. You put bacon dressing on some bitter greens, it’s just delicious. Or braise some endive in butter and it caramelizes and it just retains a tiny bit of its bitterness.”
McLagan cautions that you’d never make a meal of only bitter dishes, just as you’d never make a meal of only sour or salty or sweet.
Except for at her house that morning. Bitterness was the entire point. The last savoury course she made was Asian bitter melon seared with pork, chiles, garlic and onions. As she served it, she cautioned that it was the most intensely bitter recipe in the book.
I hope she’s right. Even against the sweetness of the onions and garlic and the seared pork’s savoury voluptuousness, that bitter melon was what you’d call pungent. Still, I liked it.
I even had a second helping.