In his weekly newsletter chef Cúán Greene expounds upon topics relevant to food culture, sharing insights, positing questions and meeting people who are adding to the collective pot. Each month, we will share a selection of edited highlights from recent posts. To sign up for a more comprehensive deep-dive, visit omos.co
Introducing the Taste Game
Growing up as a child, my father was particularly good at making up games to keep us amused, especially during the long summer holidays in Connemara. On fair days, we played ‘side to side’, a highly complex game where my siblings and I would run from one side of the garden to the next without him catching us. Another was ‘pinecone grenades’, which fell from the mammoth Douglas fir trees that led up to the house, littering the floor with ammunition to hurl at one another. That game usually ended up with a casualty or two. When it rained (which was frequent), we were restricted to the indoors and my father was forced to think innovatively. Without the distraction of a television, or the mental capacity for Irish radio, there was the birth of one game we loved above all others. Let me introduce you to the taste game.
While my father would prepare his mise en place, us children would be told to leave the room for what seemed like an eternity. We were blindfolded and called in one by one, where we stood next to the dining table. Holding our hand, our finger was dabbed in one of the eight or so artfully decorated china bowls he had aligned, passed down by my great grandmother, each containing a condiment of his own choosing. Blindly, we would prod our finger around the contents of the bowl. The contrast of cold liquids of varying levels of viscosity was enough to send shivers down our spines. Then, mustering up the courage, we would prudently take our sauce-laden finger and place it in our awaiting mouths. What followed was either sheer pleasure and relief or unadulterated disgust. Amidst yelps and squeals, you can only imagine the anticipation from the children awaiting their turn behind the door.
There were always a couple of tasty numbers to be found within the taste game: honey, my mother’s blackberry jam or our favourite golden syrup. My father usually started with these for a hint of sweetness to whet the palate. Next up was salt or umami (a flavour not even my parents were aware of back in the ’90’s). Soy, ketchup, Aromat (a seasoning almost as mysterious as chicken salt) and Marmite, the latter never too well received. There were acidic flavours like lemon, vinegar and even salad cream which we almost always identified as sour. Then came the spicy condiments, such as Coleman’s mustard or Tabasco – I don’t think any other hot sauce existed in rural Ireland in those days. Lastly, and the flavour that was least palatable to us as children, was bitterness. Grapefruit juice, cocoa powder and turmeric, all too astringent, too complex, too pungent, a disagreeable sensation for our unprepared and underdeveloped palates. When I think back about the hilarity evoked by the taste game – especially when seeing your brother lob an unfoundedly amount of Hellman’s mayonnaise or mustard into his mouth, hoping it might be Nutella – I don’t believe for a moment that the activity had any educational intention. However, over the past couple of weeks, having dug a little deeper into the exact weight bitterness has in how we eat, I think the taste game could have more to it than a befitting solution to the Irish rain.
Sweet is for sissies
A number of months ago, I attended the La Dive Bouteille wine fair in the Loire Valley, Northern France. Hundreds of winemakers convened under one roof (of a cave for that matter) displaying their wild and wonderful vintages. Many wines were extraordinary and all were low intervention, but one producer I met stands out in my memory. Ivan Massonnat from Domaine Belargus located in Anjou, a winemaking region that over the years has fallen from grace. Ivan makes wine from 100% Chenin Blanc, which varies from dry to off-dry and all the way to wines with high sugar content, which are considered sweet. While I am no expert in wine, I have a keen interest and love for wine but I often find sweet wines to be overly so, particularly when sampled without food. Ivan’s wines were different. Despite carrying high levels of sugar, the wines were inherently less sweet than others I had tasted, even though they contained the same sugar content. But why?
Ivan identified the reason to be the natural bitterness found in the grapes. The bitterness created the illusion that the wine was less sweet than it was (turning one pour quickly into two). This he identified as balance. At the time of tasting, I was coupled with my good friend Shane Murphy, a self-proclaimed professional wine drinker, who to his credit has worked in the industry for over two decades. I hold Shane’s opinion in high regard and I could see that he was bemused by this statement and slightly mystified but nodding in agreement. It was only later that he told me he had never heard of anyone accentuating the flavour of bitterness in the wine industry, as it’s usually seen as a fault. As it turns out, Domaine Belargus is not only redefining the vocabulary used within wine, but completely reinvigorating the world’s view on the wine making region of Anjou, one vintage at a time.
This interaction with Ivan was a formative moment for me and the reason I took a deep dive into bitterness. It instantly got me thinking about bitterness in a way that I had never done before. When I returned from that trip I did a series of very quick tests. Just like my father had done for me in the past, I lined up three bowls: one containing chicory syrup, one with honey, and finally one with golden syrup. I tasted the condiments in that order and each syrup tasted sweet. When I reversed the order, tasting the honey after the golden syrup and the chicory syrup after the honey, I could barely taste any sweetness coming from them. The golden syrup unpleasantly dominated, carrying over pronounced waves of sweetness that could induce a headache. My mouth was overwhelmed. The sweetness in the honey and even more so in the chicory syrup had been nullified and all I was getting was bitterness. This taste test really made it clear that when bitterness is paired with sweetness, there are two results: 1. The sweetness is diminished. 2. The bitterness (otherwise overpowering) is integrated. It’s quite a striking realisation. Honey and chicory syrup are both sweet and bitter syrups, but not evidently so; it’s a result of nature’s natural balancing act.
Why the bitterness?
Jennifer McLagan, the chef and author of the cookbook Bitter, defends bitterness as a taste. She states that, “In the kitchen, eschewing bitter is like cooking without salt, or eating without looking. Without bitterness we lose a way to balance sweetness, and by rejecting it we limit our range of flavours. Food without bitterness lacks depth and complexity.’’ If bitterness is an essential part of achieving balanced cooking, why do we operate under the belief that bitterness is vulgar? For many, the natural human reaction to bitterness is one of distaste. At some point in our evolution we learnt to decipher what foods were safe to eat. Many toxic plants are bitter and so bitterness was an indicator that a plant carried harmful toxins or poisons. However not all. Many of the wild plants available to eat are not toxic but carry bitterness. What allowed us to unearth these and cultivate them was our risk-taking nature. As a species, human beings actually enjoy a challenge, a thrill and a slight hint of danger. This might explain our childhood love for the taste game.
Over the last couple of decades, bitterness has been disappearing from our diet, particularly in the western world. Bitter foods such as kale, sprouts, grapefruit and broccoli contain phytonutrients (phyto means plant in Latin) which promote numerous health benefits. Since the ’90’s however, we have been producing milder Brussels Sprouts, sweet grapefruits and chicory that is more palatable. Over time, we crossbred these species, creating entirely new crossbreeds of our own. More palatable = more marketable. But that’s not where it ends. Scientists have found ways of removing the bitter compounds found within these bitter tasting foods for wider appeal. These plant breeders can now measure how much of a particular compound within the plant they have removed. By removing the naringin in grapefruit juice, you can eliminate 78% of the bitter flavour from it. Likewise, the chicory plant contains high quantities of bitter compounds known as terpenes which can also be removed. Considering there are over 5000 known vita nutrients which are mostly bitter, I can’t help but wonder what impact this is having on our health.
To the bitter end
Step outside of the Anglosphere and you will find a plethora of cultures that continue to embrace bitterness. In India, great reverence is placed on the Bitter Gourd or Karela, a knobbly cucumber shaped vegetable, that looks well on its way to transforming into a lizard. A slight taste of this vegetable is enough to have you wincing, but when paired appropriately, with a unique blend of spices, coconut or jaggery (a sweet sugar), the result is well balanced. Cime di rapa or Puntarelle are bitter green vegetables typical to Italy and are strikingly bitter and often astringent. What I find remarkable within Italian culture and cuisine is that dishes conjured with these ingredients make no attempt in covering up the bitterness. Void of sweetness, typically they are paired with olive oil, toasted breadcrumbs, lemon zest and anchovies. The result is unapologetically bitter, undoubtedly delicious and simply nutritious.
The venerable Italians have recognised this for millennia, not just in the form of food. Many apéritif and digestif beverages derive from Italy. They were originally used for medicinal purposes as an alcoholic herbal remedy. Alongside apéritifs and digestifs, beer and coffee also carry bitterness which is achieved through the extraction of compounds found in plants. Hops, ground ivy and botanicals are all impossibly bitter alone, but when brewed and distilled in harmony with grain, other complementary botanicals or spices, true chemistry is achieved. Subsequently, citrus flavours can be perceived, such as in a grapefruit IPA, where our taste receptors detect Alkaloid molecules also found in grapefruit! Sommeliers will tell you to opt for a glass of sparkling wine to encourage appetite, but what many don’t know is that bitterness is the perfect start to your meal. It cleanses the palate, stimulates the digestive system and improves the absorption of food. For that reason, it’s also an ideal way to end a meal.
To quote Jennifer McLagan once more, “It’s worth trying to imagine bitter as a personality: cultured, intriguing and sophisticated, with a dangerous side. Who could be more fun to cook or to dine with?” Yet, even in restaurants in Ireland, bitterness seldom gets any credit. A single bitter salad served alone will get few plaudits. Truth be told, for the most part, chefs don’t understand that you can use bitterness in a dish without it tasting bitter. However, omit the bitterness and you risk losing balance in the dish or even worse, an entire meal. What’s so intriguing about bitterness is that you don’t miss it until it’s gone! Learning to balance bitterness is not only paying homage to our past, but a transcendental act in preserving the true essence of taste. And so, while nipping your garden dandelions in the bud may solve your weed problem, placing them in your salad can help reset your palate.
Words – Cúán Greene
Feature Image Credit: Micheile
Cúán Greene is a chef and author of the Ómós Digest Newsletter. This is an edit of a post which is available at omos.substack.com