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Thursday, November 5, 2015

Bitter Herbs - by Rebecca Veenstra

     Why would anyone choose to eat bitter herbs? Even if they were good for you wouldn’t you want to make them taste better?

     Not necessarily.... sometimes a spoonful of sugar just ruins the medicine. Probably you have heard of Agnostura bitters? Perhaps you have seen the odd little brown bottle with the ill-fitting paper label on the shelf at the grocery store and wondered what the heck it was...

     Anyone who has mixed cocktails has likely put a dash of the strange concoction into the shaker before. Maybe you remember your Grandma or Grandpa telling  you it would settle your tummy--or perhaps a friend offered it as a sure fire cure for a hang over.

     The practice of using bitters had mostly receded to folklore for quite some time here in the United States until recently. New small batch recipe companies and exclusive trendy stores are starting to carry bitters and extol their virtues as though they’d thought of it themselves.


     The truth is though, that we have used bitters for literally thousands of years.  Some records indicate that the Ancient Egyptians may have concocted bitters in jugs of wine.  Now days, people turn their noses up at bitter flavors for the most part. In the days of hunting and gathering we had little choice but to consume bitter foods and greens. Our ancestors considered these wild bitter tasting plants critical to their health.  Many of the diseases our modern culture suffers from like indigestion and gastric reflux to metabolic disorders ranging from elevated cholesterol to type 2 diabetes—seem to all point back to the deficiency of bitterness in our diets, (1) and the lack of the protection and tone it imparts to our digestion and metabolic functions.  Our palates became more refined as we became more civilized and we found ourselves appreciating salts and more bland foods. So, consequently, bitter herbs  became less common but ironically, more necessary.
     Once people managed to get the hang of distillation-- recipes for bitters became quite commonplace. Many of the snake oil peddlers of the olden days were selling bitters of one recipe or another. Incidentally, many of those bottles are worth a small fortune now. One of the first bitters to ever be bottled and sold in mass was Agnostura bitters. The recipe was first compounded as a cure for sea sickness by a German physician Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert in 1824. Dr. Siegert named his concoction after the town of Agnostura in Venezuela where he formed the House of Agnostura. (2)

     The basic concept is a mixture of herbs that tastes bitter. The actual taste is the absolute most important aspect of the recipe.  Bitter herbs are thought to stimulate digestive function by increasing saliva production and promoting both stomach acid and digestive enzyme production (3) which leads to improved appetite and digestion.  As a result, they are particularly used when there is low stomach acid but not in heartburn (where too much stomach acid could initially exacerbate the situation).
These herbs literally taste bitter. The theraputic action of the preparation is hugely reliant on the patient experiencing the bitter taste. If the taste is masked, the neurological physiological response will not result in the theraputic stimulation of the digestive system and appetite. (4)  In plain English that means that to try and make bitters more palatable by adding sweetener or flavors would completely negate the medicinal effect.  How odd right?

     Our tongues have zones on them that allow us to taste different flavors. There are many theories about what effects these flavor zones have on our physiology. For example, many Traditional Chinese medicine texts suggest that sour tastes drain the liver. This would be potentially beneficial to people with congested livers. Likewise, it is theorized that when people ingest bitter tasting things the saliva is stimulated which affects the stomach to product digestive enzymes which prepares the digestive system for the process of breaking down foods.

     This could potentially benefit a person with slow digestion or low appetite. The more prepared the body is for food the better it is able to break it down efficiently. Proper absorption is completely dependent on the body’s ability to extract the nutrients from the food in the first place.

     The other potential benefit to using bitters theraputically is related to the family that such herbs occupy in the scheme of things. Herbalists catagorize herbs into groups based on their “properties” or actions in the body. Bitter herbs would be called “tonic” herbs. Tonic is from the Greek word meaning “to tone”.

     Tonic herbs help to strengthen and cleanse the body. Thus, building vitality. They in essence, tone the body. It is worth noting that using tonic herbs is really something that would be avoided during types of acute illness or injury. The body must have energy to strengthen and during times of duress a tonic would add stress.

     Some people would say that refering to a tonic as a “bitter tonic” would be redundant --tonic herbs are by nature bitter. They come in two main subcatagories, cardiac tonics and stomach tonics. A tonic gives tone to the muscular fibers. Influencing primarliy the digestive system.

     Bitters are generally taken either by mixing 1–3 ml tincture into water, soda water, or at times gin or vodka and sipping slowly 10–30 minutes before eating, or by making tea, which is also sipped slowly before eating. This is where the practice of having cocktails before dinner originated. People would mix a dash of bitters to a beverage and sip it for a while before a meal was served. By the same token, this is why some fancier restaurants still offer bitter salads like endive and arugula before the meal is served.

     Some herbs that have bitter/tonic properties are dandelion, chamomile, golden seal, milk thistle, blessed thistle, wormwood, and yarrow. Greens with bitter/tonic properties are endive and chicory, coriander has been included in this list in some texts I’ve read. There are many creative ways you could incorporate bitter herbs into your diet and recipes. Keeping in mind the general theory of practice that they should be ingested prior to eating and not with dessert.

     Cannabis leaves are not included in the texts available for study at present but if you have ever nibbled on a pot leaf you might have noticed its a bit bitter. In my completely organic garden I have seldom tasted a leaf I would call sweet. My point being that in theory Cannabis leaves could satisfy the bitter element in some recipes. Not to forget, Cannabis is a pretty well established appetite stimulant in its own right. So, there is reason to believe that combining bitters and Cannabis could potentially have very beneficial effects.

     For example, maybe you make a nice little salad before supper with some cannabis leaf and arugula tossed in a bit of vinegar dressing or lemon juice and olive oil. Just trim and wash the leaves like a normal salad leaf and cut it to your liking. Coriander leaves or cilantro leaf is known for its ability to draw heavy metals from the system as well. So, that might be worth noting for future salad making as well.

     Rabbit food is not your thing? No worries, there are other ways you can incorporate bitters into your lifestyle. Of course the option for tea always exists. This is the most simple way to make a single serving size. The best part is every time you can customize the recipe to your immediate liking that day. Just be sure to keep the honey and sugar on the shelf.

     Not much for tea? Don’t do salads? Feeling left out? The last and final option is one that anyone can utilize. Historically many types of liquor have been used to create bitters recipes. Essentially all you need is some liquor and bitter herbs. Ideally, this liquor is unsweetened and of substantial proof. The best choices would be already bitter substances like vodka or gin. Don’t worry about getting drunk on the alcohol. The amount you will ingest is very small. Few people can tolerate large servings of bitters. Most serving sizes would call for a few ml or a dash.

     The way you would prepare your bitters would be to use a recipe of known amounts and herbs or, if you are adventurous research and create your own personal concoction. The gist is that you soak the herbs in the liquor for a prescribed period of time and then strain them out saving the herb infused liquor in a dry sealed container, preferably a dark colored clean glass bottle. Perhaps you can make the latest and greatest new bitter and take advantage of the current trend in the market.

     The way you would serve this is to put a small amount in soda water, plain water, or a cocktail. It would be very unpalatable straight up and miniscule amounts are needed to achieve a medicinal effect.

     As I mentioned earlier, Cannabis has certain likely potential as a bitter herb.  So, if you decide to make a cannabis tincure, or Green Dragon -- ( For anyone uninitiated, Green Dragon is the common name for Cannabis tincturated in alcohol. Everclear has the highest proof but any clear alcohol will work with DRY plant matter. If you choose to use wet plant matter you need a much higher proof alcohol to account for the moisture in the wet plant.)-- maybe you save a little bit of your cannabis tincture aside and  add some dried dandelion leaf or some other bitter herb you have researched and measured. I say, measure because a little goes a long long long way when it comes to bitter herbs. Gentian root can be detected in mixtures at ratios of 1:20,000. Let the Cannabis tincture sit and soak with the bitter herbs for a few weeks.  Then, this tincture would be strained just like the above non-Cannabis recipe. The serving suggestions would be the same as well. Just a dash in a non sweetened beverage a little while before eating.

     I think the idea of sitting together and having a little something like tea or salad, or  a little bitter cocktail before a meal is a nice idea. It’s that little bit of quiet time together that can really set a mood. We forget a lot of old fashioned traditions in our hurried lives that maybe had a real benefit to us in the long run.

     Often, indigestion is because our bodies are forced to eat at times when it’s convenient and not necessarily the best time for our digestive systems. If some one throws a lot of work on your desk when you aren’t prepared I bet you don’t drop everything to deal with it. Our stomachs are the same way. They need a little bit of warning before we can expect them to work efficiently.

     If you take a few minutes to prepare your body for it’s next meal you might find that you have a little more energy, maybe a few less aches and pains, maybe less indigestion. This holiday season maybe give bitters a try and see if you don’t fare better with the parties and feasts.  Maybe mix up a few bottles of your own special recipe to share with friends and family.

     Whether your interest in bitter herbs is medicinal, creative,or culinary, remember that all herbs should be used properly to obtain the best results. Before you decide to use an alternative medicine approach such as herbal treatments and remedies, it’s wise to consult with your healthcare professional as some herbs can interact with prescription medicines or be toxic if used improperly.

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