The word bitter evokes feelings that are hard to swallow. In fact, biologists have found that our palates naturally evolved to reject bitter tastes, which can indicate poison. However, many of our favourite indulgences, such as beer, coffee, and cocktails, are inherently bitter.
And coffee is getting a new bitter twist as cafés around the city embrace turmeric milk, an ancient Southeast Asian concoction that some believe boosts the immune system and reduces inflammation. In New Edinburgh, the quaint Union Street Kitchen Café softens the bitterness of turmeric root with maple cardamom syrup in their version of Golden Milk. It’s a tasty alternative for those looking for a caffeine-free drink (though a shot of espresso could be added if a kick is needed), and turmeric counters sweetness nicely. Union Street serves up the bright yellow beverage hot or cold; the warming spices and vibrant colour make it a good pick-me-up at any time of day.
When it comes to olive oil, bitterness “is not only desirable but a necessary taste component in fresh extra virgin olive oil,” explains Elizabeth Kilvert of The Unrefined Olive. If an olive oil isn’t bitter, it could mean that it is rancid or that it cannot be classified as extra virgin.
The bitterness of olive oil is measured on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the bitterest. Kilvert estimates that the bitterest oil she has tasted would have ranked as a six — generally, people enjoy oils between two and three on the bitterness scale, such as Spain’s Arbequina olive oil. If you’re trying bitterer oils, Kilvert suggests pairing with good bread and pasta — carbohydrates that are naturally sweeter and play well with strong olive oils.
For something even stronger, Jamie Martyniuk, who mans the bar at Citizen, looks to the Negroni — the iconic aperitif. The Italian cocktail combines sweet vermouth and herbaceous gin with Campari — the bright red liqueur with a bitter punch. However, Martyniuk says bitterness is not the most prominent flavour. Rather, it plays “a small role in the background,” bringing balance and complexity to the drink.
Speaking of drinks, the International Bitterness Unit (IBU) is a common indicator of how bitter a beer will be. Used by brewers, it is a measurement of the bittering chemical compounds in the beer but does not always correspond with how a beer tastes. Matt Tweedy, head brewer at Tooth and Nail brewery in Hintonburg, doesn’t recommend picking a beer based on its IBUs. “A great beer has a balance to it, whether bitter or not,” he says. Tweedy calls bitterness an essential component of beer. “Bitterness, although an aggressive tactile sensation, can still have finesse and wonderful flavour.” To achieve that finesse, the recipe requires constant tasting and tweaking; Tweedy has been working on Tooth and Nail’s Rabble Rouser IPA for over two years.
Adam Vettorel, chef and co-owner at North & Navy, calls bitterness his “secret weapon” in the kitchen. Northern Italian cuisine often uses bitter elements, and since North American food typically does not, Vettorel is happy to introduce diners to unfamiliar flavours. He also notes that bitter flavours stimulate the appetite. Around the world, many cultures begin a meal with a bitter drink or snack, which aids digestion.
The chef points to a quail-and-polenta dish that is complemented by red endive served two ways. A hard sear on halved endive heads reveals the vegetable’s complex sweetness, while a garnish of crunchy raw endive packs a bitter punch and is balanced by the honey glaze on the quail.
For those looking to incorporate bitter flavours into their cooking, Vettorel advises using the bitter ingredient as the starting point and balancing flavours from there. “Taste your radicchio, dandelion, asparagus … and then decide how much help they need.” Sugar will neutralize flavours, while fat will mellow things out; too much of either will completely mask the distinctive taste.
Vettorel brings it all back to the classic aperitif. “Remember, a good Negroni is bitter first, sweet second.”
$4.50/12oz. Union Street Kitchen Café. 42 Crichton St.
Arbequina olive oil
$14. Unrefined Olive. 151A Second Ave.
$9. Citizen. 207 Gilmour St.
Tooth and Nail’s Rabble Rouser
$7.50/pt. Tooth and Nail. 3 Irving Ave.
Quail and Polenta with red endive
$32. North & Navy. 226 Nepean St.