At the Kitchen Table on January 18th, Jennifer McLagan (Bitter, Blood, and Odd Bits), and Naomi Duguid, (The Miracle of Salt) explored the effect of bitter and salt on the palate. What follows is a rough digest of the extremely lively chatline.
PERCEPTIONS OF TASTE
Bitterness is a matter of degree of acceptability: young dandelion leaves are milder than full-grown, and this is true of all wild leaves; bitterness in roots, ie. cassava, has to be leached (buried or treated with lye or both), which is a very ancient habit. I’m rediscovering bitter local greens through the older generation: fenugreek (methi) or slightly sour – dhantu (Amaranth). My new favourite salad is raw fenugreek leaves roughly chopped with roasted peanuts, salt and lemon.
Different cultures have different thresholds for perceptions of bitter: for my Lebanese husband, sloes are absolutely not bitter! The best Smørrebrød is bitter rye bread with a fatty-salty topping. Bengali meals often include a bitter course.
When Harold McGee was at the Kitchen Table the other day, I asked him if he had heard that some people are genetically predisposed to like bitter foods (Italians, I’d been told) or whether it was cultural: he said, most likely both.
It’s possible that certain culinary traditions have developed food-combinations that help to appreciate foodstuffs that are particularly salty and/or bitter. [For instance] lactose-fermented and sun dried lentils in Tamil Nadu, taste awful to the uninitiated, and are best served with curd rice (cooked rice with yoghourt and spices).
At a cheese tasting recently, a cheese described as ‘peppery’ was perceived by my husband as bitter and funky. The rind of soft cheeses has a bitter quality: camembert more than brie, so it’s terrible when people cut them off. Certain cheese and wine combinations taste bitter when taken together but not when taken separately. Certain cheeses make certain red wines taste metallic, which is [most likely] a reaction to the fatty acids. At a cheese and wine tasting, the combos and order in which we tasted very much changed how we rated them.
Does the salt content increase [perceptions of] bitterness or sweetness in cheese? We keep bringing up “funk” (and barnyard), which is not a formal flavor but seems tied loosely to bitter.
LOSING BITTERNESS, APPRECIATING SALTINESS
Bitterness is bred out of lettuce, which is very bitter in the wild. In cultivation, we breed towards sweetness. It would be interesting to know the comparative nutritional-value, say, of the sweeter, milder-tasting brussels sprouts available now compared to the more bitter/sulfurous sprouts of the past? Did earlier generations in the UK appreciate bitter things more than we do, an is there a health consequence?
Green olives are supposed to be bitter, but mass production means they tend to be cured in salt water with the pip removed and all the bitterness disappears. Grapefruits are as mild as oranges now – so sad.
Breeding-out bitterness is part of the loss of diversity in foods: we lose biodiversity at our peril (read Dan Saladino). I wonder how the biomes of people who like and eat bitter foods differs from those who don’t.
Bitterness is a danger-signal, a protective device. Babies hate it, adults have to learn to love it. Knowledge of what’s edible in the wild ends to be lost: only last year quite a few Albanians died from eating foraged greens. It is a perilous habit for urban foragers. Bitterness in wild fungi is a sign of toxicity.
WHEN SALTY MEETS BITTERNESS
There is a certain edginess around salt. Fear of the unknown in salt-fermented foods is actually a fear of the “fermented” – sour/tangy/bitter.
Preservative or flavouring, which came first? Animals seek out salt-deposits in the wild. Salt is provided for cattle as a daily ritual (and the cattle are not using it as a preservative!). In the New Forest in the UK in winter, wild ponies congregate to lick the roads that have been sprayed with salt – a hazard for drivers at night. We used salt and molasses in licks for the cattle – salty and bitter together. Where salt isn’t easily sourced, salt licks are essential. Flavour-wise, salt should be an invisible enabler – bitter is so much more discernible than salt.
There are health dangers attached to absence of salt in a diet. You can get cramps from lack of salt. Salt is also associated with good health: salt mines in Europe were said to cure asthma. Salt was probably adopted very early as an addition to food – people feel better after eating it. In inland Brazil, indigenous inhabitants used to eat wood-ashes for the salt that remained after wood was burnt.
Salt is essential for cellar function. Natural salt has lots of other chemicals in it: sodium is essential to health, as are other minerals that come with natural salt. Sea salt has iodine, which is very good against goitre which is a benign tumor in the thyroid gland. But it was not much consumed in colonial times in Brazil, so goitres became a sign of beauty.
THEY’VE DONE THE CHEMISTRY
Sea salt has iodine, but mined salt doesn’t. Sea salt can have natural iodine, but more pure commercial salts have added iodine. Sea-water will be saturated but the crystals will settle, so it is a physical phase rather than a freshwater separation (says the oceanographer).
MSG-sodium and glutamic-acid serve as flavor enhancers, which is why seaweeds are so useful for flavoring. Soy sauce, MSG, and seaweed all have sodium, which is the element you want to avoid in NaCl. Glynn Christian says that MSG opens taste buds, which is what causes “Chinese Restaurant syndrome”
LoSalt is predominantly Potassium and supposedly less a problem for those who need to lower sodium To complete the circle, those potassium salt-substitutes taste bitter to some people. If you need to reduce salt in food, sumac is really good! Lemon juice can help if you need to reduce salt.
Does ash as a salt-source relate to the recent fad for adding charcoal dust to foods? I think they were invoking its ability to absorb “toxins”, which is mostly pseudoscience, as charcoal also absorbs nutrients.
Bitter says poison, so we have an in-built response to the taste. Sensitivity to bitter is more acute in children at the toddler stage, crawling on the ground and tasting their way around. A little bitterness is pleasurable – it triggers the release of endorphins, like walking along a knife edge – how much bitter can I take. It’s addictive, like chilli-heat. Bitter gives complexity to a dish, but if you take out the salt, it’s quite flat.
People confuse sour and bitter. Bitter is a much more dramatic flavour. Is bitter good for the digestion? Yes, it’s a stimulant – it has a more important role than salt. Swallow a shot of olive oil, you have to cough as it hits the receptors at the back of the throat.
For the chefs in the group, when do you add something bitter to a curated menu, at the start or the end, where it acts as a digestif?
Supertaster-tests include bitter chemicals not used in foods, because sensitivity to different sorts of bitterness isn’t clearly identified through food-tests alone. Super-tasters have to be able to rate the bitterness of tannins in tea and coffee.
FRIENDS FOR EVER
Bitter in the religious sense is quite condemning – as in ’till the bitter end’ – But there’s optimism in ‘the salt of life’. Bitterness is acquired – something the world gives to us, but saltiness is inherent – something we give the world.