Food without bitterness lacks depth and complexity.
So does it matter if we avoid bitter? Absolutely yes! Bitterness is a double-edged sword: it signals toxic and dangerous, but it can also be pleasurable and beneficial.
a bitter Spring elixer – stinging nettle
We can probably all agree that Fernet-Branca, rapini, citrus zests, and beer are bitter, but Camembert, celery, cucumber, Campari, Belgian Chimay cheese, eggplant, lemons, pickled onions, rhubarb, Seville orange marmalade, sorrel, coffee, and white Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine? Aren’t rhubarb and sorrel simply sour? Lemon is both sour—its juice—and bitter—its peel. Celery, cucumber, Seville orange marmalade, Campari, and white Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine all have bitter notes, but eggplant is rarely bitter today. The bitterness of Chimay cheese comes from its beer-washed rind, and I’ve discovered that cheeses made with cardoons have a touch of bitterness, but Camembert?
Bitter is both an appetite stimulant and a digestive—that is, it has the power to make you hungry as well as helping you digest your meal.
Bitter is not simply a reaction on our tongue—a taste in the strict sense—but also includes many different signals that register as bitterness in our brain. While only acids signal “sour,” by contrast thousands of different compounds in foods elicit a “bitter” response.
And taste is only one of our senses that indicate bitterness. Smell, temperature, color, texture, and how the food feels in our mouth all relay a sense of bitterness to our brain. The pungency of arugula and horseradish can evoke a taste of bitter, as can the astringency that you find in celery, or the tannins in tea and cooked apricots. These sensations are delivered not through our taste buds, but via our somatosensory system, which includes touch, temperature, and texture. Beyond immediate sensory input are a whole range of cultural, environmental, experiential, and genetic factors that play a role in our perception of bitterness.
Coffee, bitter alcohols, and chocolate, stimulate our nervous system in ways we enjoy, so we actively seek them out. Over time we have also discovered that many bitter foods contain compounds that can protect us against illness, and positively influence our health.