Recently I’m discovering that I have an appreciation for the bitter flavors: almost unsweetened chocolate, endives and radicchio, Campari, even molasses and certain olives. Certain beers, too. What once used to make my sweet tooth recoil is now interesting, complex, cleansing.
How absolutely odd and delightful!
Bitter is one of the tastes I associate with winter when grapefruit, kale and endive are in season and I pour molasses over my pancakes. Bitterness has a brightness, a kind of vivid nature which wakes up my sleepy, hibernating palate. I imagine slivers of deep red radicchio in salads, the juice of a grapefruit used in the dressing. Or just the taste of a good, bitter chocolate melting in my mouth, chased by a shot of espresso.
The synonyms for bitter are for the most part quite negative: rancorous, peevish, nasty, ill-natured. A bitter woman is someone best avoided; a bitter blow is far more agonizing than a mere upset. But despite the fact that we are inclined from birth to like sweet things, we also have an appreciation for the bitter. Easy proof: if it were just caffeine people wanted every morning, we’d down a can of Pepsi instead of cup after cup of rich, bitter coffee.
I’m excited to explore my newfound bitter flavors this season. I’m happy, too, to discover that my tastes are still changing and evolving, that I wake up each day not quite the same person that went to bed the night before. How exciting, and strange, and bittersweet it is!
Update 11/16/2014: A few months ago I received a copy of the cookbook Bitter by Jennifer McLagan (pictured above) and I was immediately reminded of this Weekend Meditation from 2010 and the time when I just started to appreciate bitter flavors. Since receiving it, this lovely book has only expanded that appreciation, with its amazingly deep and thorough exploration into the realm of bitter flavors.
I’m also struck by how satisfying it has been to have my palate broadened by including bitter flavors and how appropriate they can be sometimes. I think of how brisk and refreshing a Campari and soda is on a hot summer’s day or the way braised radicchio offsets the richness and sweetness of pork. So often, when I add a touch of bitter to my cooking, I find that everything comes into balance, allowing for a complexity I couldn’t achieve without it.
Oh and equally worth mentioning is just how gorgeous the accompanying photographs are in Bitter. (Full disclosure: The photographer Aya Brackett is my friend and neighbor.) I love how they create a shadowy moodiness and how the rich, dark colors mirror the complex relationship we have to the bitter things in life.
As we head into cold and dark days of winter, I look forward to spending more time with this book, curled up on the couch with a wool blanket over my shoulders and a square of bitter dark chocolate melting slowly on my tongue.
* * *
I hope you enjoyed this encore Weekend Meditation, originally posted on December 5, 2010. I will be posting these vintage posts every Sunday (with the occasional new post, if I can manage!) for the next several months while I focus on writing my first book.