When I serve a glass of bone dry Riesling to a punter and they timorously venture that “it’s quite bitter,” I know what they mean. They mean that it’s sour and they don’t know the difference. Whilst I am wont to correct the specifics of their assessment, I never chide them. Sure we all eat and drink, and there are only five (or seven) flavours to choose from, but smells contribute to our sense of taste in an inexorable and unquantifiable way, and the basics require a little more attention than most people give them. When the person that mistakes sour for bitter is a hospitality professional, however, I am moved to distraction. There are many skills and aptitudes that contribute to making a good hospitality worker, and not every worker has every skill in spades, but surely understanding and detecting the most basic concepts of flavour should be base-level skills. The knowledge of taste is not esoteric, but does require a willingness to push flavour a few levels up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
At its most functional level, taste helps us to eat the foods we need, so we’re attracted to sugars and salts and umami. My daughter’s maternal grandmother, apparently used to be rather fond of eating soil from the garden when she was a very little girl. Concerned, her parents took her to see a physician, who established that she was iron deficient. When the deficiency was corrected, she had no further interest in eating dirt. Bitter flavours are generally off putting unless one acquires a taste for them over time. This is biologically sensible as many poisonous and unhealthy substances have a bitter flavour. Somewhere along the way though, resourceful – and probably hungry – people realised that you can eat many things designed to be unpalatable: chilli, for example.
A chilli, like all living things, lives only to reproduce. When a bird eats chilli, it pecks its way into the fruit and eats the seeds without chewing them. It will then fly off away from the plant and later deposit the seed somewhere in a pile of droppings which act as a fertilizer. It is a great system for the chilli. Not so when mammals eat the fruit. They tend to chew things and in doing so, they crush the seeds and render them infertile. To defend against this, the resourceful little chilli produces a substance called capsaicin, which produces a burning sensation in the mouths of mammals, but is undetectable to birds. When chillis have to struggle to survive, say in adverse weather conditions or with a lack of nutrients, it will produce less fruit with a lot more capsaicin in it. It is desperate to survive and doesn’t want to waste any of its precious seeds on pesky mammals. Of course, this technique backfired when humans actually started to develop a liking for the burning sensation. With agriculture, however, came an ironic reversal of fortune for the chilli and it’s fearsome defence mechanism became its most appealing feature and assured it a long and prosperous future as long as humans are around.
Bitter flavours have likewise found their way into our diets. Water is the most widely consumed beverage on Earth, followed by tea and beer, both of which have prominent bitter flavours. Even further down the line we find coffee and chocolate, both very bitter before they are sweetened prior to consumption. Even Coca-Cola is a mixture of sweet, sour and bitter flavours.
The Italians seem to have made an art-form of bitterness. They utilise vegetables, such as radicchio, chicory, and rapini. They have an entire range of aperitifs and digestifs known as amari, or bitters such as: Campari, Averna, Amaro Montenegro, and the gloriously bitter Fernet Branca. They slip a healthy measure of bitter into treats as well where an unsweetened extract of liquorice forms resinous, bittersweet lozenges as they are traditionally made in Calabria.
The Chinese, who view food as medicine, eat bitter foods such as dandelion and bitter melon in summer. According to traditional Chinese medicine, the bitter flavour clears excess heat from the liver which is exactly the opposite of what alcohol consumption does, so maybe the Italians are on to something. In addition, the bitter flavour is said to reduce inflammation and promote bowel movements, which endorses the prevalence of bitter digestives throughout Europe.
My personal introduction to bitter flavours came when I was at cooking school in San Francisco. I was part of a group of culinary minded young hopefuls that wanted to become serious and legitimate in the world of food. We tried so many new things that after a while we started trying just about anything we could to bombard our palates with new sensations. I chewed, licked, sniffed and savoured every herb and spice in the pantry. I ate every meat, fish and vegetable raw and tried to imprint every sensation in my mind. My fellow collegians and I had all made the same leap at the same time. We no longer tasted to work out if we liked the taste, we started to taste academically. Taste everything, and develop a library of flavours from which to draw creatively or assess critically. If you work in a bar and you don’t particularly like sweet and creamy cocktails, it shouldn’t preclude being able to taste an excellent example of one of these drinks and reproduce it faithfully.
It is therefore possible to regard the sense of taste beyond it role in survival, safety, social ritual and acceptance, even prestige. To use the palate as a means to self-actualization. Flavour for the sake of flavour, for the progression of personal and human endeavour, as a path to enlightenment. Flavour is at once visceral, inspiring passion, and chemical, provoking intellectual examination. For those of us that spend our days sweating over infernal ranges, pouring drinks or liaising between demanding customers and irascible chefs, understanding flavour is not an option. Sour is sour, bitter is bitter. If you can’t tell the difference there’s only one solution: try it, I don’t care if you like it!