I find, from a recent article in a cookery magazine (forgive me, I forget which magazine) that aromatic bitters are in fashion. I admit to having trouble keeping up with food fashions myself, as I keep confusing these new ideas with old.Apparently, if one wants to be à la mode (fashionable) one can create very recherché (choice, exotic) cocktails and cooked dishes by adding a soupçon of bitters to the mix.
None of this is new, of course. Bitters, aromatic or otherwise, have been around for a few hundred years at least. Initially, ‘bitters’ were derived from a number of plants, and were used for medicinal purposes. A medical paper of 1847 summed up the indications for their use:
“Bitters give tone to the stomach, increase appetite, and promote digestion; they are, besides, essentially antihelminthical, .... Most of the bitters have been used as remedies in intermittent fevers, and, doubtless, in many instances with good effect. They have been supposed to be emmenagogue also ....”
An ‘intermittent fever’ is a classical feature of malaria, and the most famous bitter medication used for this was Peruvian bark – from which we get quinine (and tonic water.) A spoonful of sugar (and/or a splash of alcohol) makes a bitter medicine go down more easily, of course, and – in a similar way to rhubarb, which we discussed a few days ago – eventually the bitter-sweet combination became adapted for pleasurable use in beverages and made dishes.
The most famous brand of bitters is Angostura, named for the town on the Orinoco river where it was first made in 1824 – by a medical doctor intending it for therapeutic purposes. Every company which produces ‘bitters’ keeps its recipe a closely- guarded secret, and even with the best guesswork, they are impossible to reproduce. Home-made versions can be differently good however, and the following recipe, from The manufacture of liquors, wines, and cordials, ... by Pierre Lacour (New York, 1868) sounds pretty tasty. I don’t wish to state the obvious too obviously here – the instructions result in an industrial quantity, and need scaling down significantly for household use!
Chandler’s Aromatic Bitters.
Whiskey, two gallons; water, six gallons; take of bruised ginger one pound; calamus, eight ounces; cloves, six ounces, grains of paradise, twelve ounces; cardamom, six ounces; then dissolve in one pint of alcohol the following: oil of cloves, twenty drops; oil of nutmegs, one drachm; oil of bergamot, one drachm; oil of orange, one drachm; then add to infuse with the mass half an ounce of cochineal, digest the whole for one week, and then strain. The essential oils should not be added until the liquid is strained.
Quotation for the Day.
Bitters ... are absolutely essential to the creation of scores and scores of the world’s best mixed drinks: drinks which without such aromatic pointing-up would be short-lived, spineless and ineffectual things.
The Gentleman’s Companion, Charles H. Baker, 1946.