Not sour, nor astringent, bitterness lies somewhere out in the culinary wilderness and wastelands. And this isn’t just a metaphor for how bitter foods have dropped out of our daily diets. Practically all our native British bitters are ruderal species. They thrive where other plants cannot, growing on scrubland, in-between the cracks in the pavements, alongside railway lines, and taking over abandoned buildings.
Opportunistic, unfussy, hardy, undiscerning and often times indestructible, we foolishly denigrate our dandelions, burdock, mugwort, and vervain. Using Bitter plants for medicine is as old as civilisation. Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurvedic and Herbalism all extensively rely on bitter plants as the backbone of some of their most effective remedies. Known as “blood cleansing” medicines these bitter plants are employed to balance blood sugar, heal the gut, and promote better liver function.
In 1986 food writer Patience Gray published her seminal book, Honey From a Weed. It was whilst living on the Greek island of Naxos that her passion for edible weeds, or radikia, a word that means “plants with beneficial roots and leaves, but also specifically dandelions”, started. It is interesting that we have no such word in the English language to describe bitters or weeds in this way, and is perhaps an indication of how it is no longer as ingrained and defined in our culture as it is in others.
Traditionally though bitters were considered in the realms of culinary than medicinal use, and Gray’s beautifully insightful chapter on Edible Weeds (which could have easily been called ‘Edible Bitters’) is a testament to that. What is essential to know about the bitter taste is that all herbs contain some degree of bitterness. Anyone who has chewed on fresh rosemary, sage or even verdant glossy leaves of Italian flat-leafed parsley can confirm this – cooking or combining with other foods and oils is what makes them more palatable to our sensitive sensibilities. This means that we can all start to widen our palates with a few simple know-hows.
Simplicity is key in the kitchen. Weeds have been the sustenance mainstay of populations that traditionally have not had access to much – they were a way of providing additional nourishment in times of famine, and as medicine at a time when doctors were expensive and scarce.
Words by Maya Thomas