Cavolo nero, Tuscan kale. Photo by Nick Saltmarsh, Creative Commons

The Beauty of Bitter in Italian Food

Think of the last time you ate something bitter. Not drank. Ate. I wouldn’t be surprised if you couldn’t. That’s because this pillar of taste that makes up one of the five flavors (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami) is going out of fashion and consequently out of our diets…and that might be a problem.

When I listened to the Bitterness episode on BBC’s Food Programme podcast, it struck a note immediately. “Dan Saladino hunts down that flavour we call ‘bitter’, and asks if bitterness is disappearing from our food and drink—and why this matters.”

I’ve always been a fan of bitterness, especially when it comes to coffee and beer. The blacker and hoppier, the better. I also enjoy it in food, and can’t forget how delicious broccoli raab braised in olive oil was the first time I ate it. But other than that and grapefruit, I didn’t grow up with too many bitter foods. And didn’t grapefruit used to be more bitter? Once, I sprinkled sugar on it in the mornings; now I eat grapefruits in slices like oranges.

Dan noted two modern-day food cultures where bitterness features prominently: Indian and Italian. Let’s take a look at what modern-day bitterness in Italian food means.

Bitter Italian

Could less sweet and more bitter go hand-in-hand? When I first moved here, I noticed not so much the bitterness in Italian cuisine as I did the lack of sweetness; even most of their desserts don’t overdo it on sugar. I gradually came to realize that Italian cuisine uses quite a few bitter ingredients, too. For example, one of my favorite dishes is long-simmered cime di rapa, similar to broccoli raab (and in the same Brassicaceae family, though they’re different), with hot pepper, olive oil, garlic, and a spritz of lemon at the end. I could eat an entire pan of that.

As for other bitter Italian food? There are at least four different types of radicchio you can find in the average supermarket: curly, round, conical, and long; cicoria, or dandelion greens, are popular year-round (best eaten with fava bean puree, a humble but delicious Pugliese specialty); endive (chicory), which is good dipped, raw, into the Piedmontese bagna cauda, a warm, savory dip made from anchovies, garlic, and olive oil; arugula, which is also in the Brassicaceae family and is used in many dishes, including raw on pizza; and Tuscan kale, or cavolo nero.

Even a few cheeses have bitter flavor—not to be confused with pungent. For example, Castelmagno cheese, made in Piedmont, has a slightly bitter aftertaste. Though in many other cheeses, bitterness is considered a defect.

Four types of radicchio found in Italy

Another bitter aspect to the Italian diet is the after-dinner drink: the digestivo, also called an amaro, literally “bitter.”. Made with dozens of herbs that were traditionally wild foraged, the digestivo is taken at the end of the meal, ostensibly to help you digest. Italians love to be able to digest their food well. I suppose we all appreciate good digestion, but in Italy, it’s a topic of conversation, a dictator of meals (what to eat when and in what order—no oranges at night!), and even a selling point for pizzerias and bakeries that advertise easily-digestible dough.

I’m not poking fun at the preoccupation of good digestion, either. Considering the gut has been called the body’s “second brain” because of its complex system of 100 million neurons and connection with our “primary brain,” Italians could very well be on to something. (see this super-interesting article in Scientific American)

The Beauty of Bitter

In most Western cuisines, bitterness is losing the battle to more easily-palatable food.

Why does it matter if we lose bitterness in our foods? Saladino says that we’re losing diversity in our products and plants, as well as the complexity in our diets. The part about complexity, on a purely flavorful level, really intrigued me. All the senses play together to make a food delicious. Imagine forgetting to add salt to brownies (which, by the way, have bitterness if you think of all that cocoa you put in). Something would fall flat, right? It’s not that brownies are salty, though some recipes sprinkle flaked salt on top; it’s that the salt and bitterness contrast with the sweetness to make brownies scrumptious.

Plus, bitterness is a sign of a high amount of antioxidants in the food—so you’re losing out on lots of great health benefits, too.

But if bitter foods are so healthy, why are our taste buds so adverse to bitterness? Because bitterness could signify toxicity. Not all bitter foods are toxic, but pretty much all toxic foods are bitter. Better safe than sorry.

But rather than bitterness being a warning signal for toxic foods and thus yucky to many people, I think that it’s an acquired taste that has just gone out of fashion.

First of all, forager Miles Irving and author of The Forager Handbook notes that bitter hemlock is the only toxic wild plant found growing where he forages in England. It doesn’t make sense that the body’s response to bitterness would prohibit a person from eating so many incredibly healthy plants with all those great antioxidants, all for the sake of hemlock (of course, it’s also important to consider that maybe plant diversity has changed over the centuries).

Secondly, there’s something similar in the taste for bitterness as there is to eating spicy foods. Spiciness hurts! Who wouldn’t be alarmed if their tongue burned and their forehead sweat, thinking the sensation was a warning to stop eating right now? Yet lots of people are attracted to hot ‘n’ spicy food and sauces. Many build their resistance to it on purpose, gradually upping the spicy ante. Maybe we’ve become adverse to building the same kind of give-and-take relationship with bitterness.

Fernet Branca
Fernet Branca, one of the most bitter Italian digestivi. Photo by Jesús Dehesa, Creative Commons

Irving described bitterness as “a hard wind to blow the cobwebs out of your head,” “bracing,” and “stimulating.” That’s what I’m looking for when I sip a digestivo! Incidentally, I feel the same about spicy foods. Nothing clears the sinuses like too much chili pepper.

And a final note comparing Italian to American cuisine: Saladino suggests that the recent interest in bitter craft beer and bitter chocolate, as well as bitter cocktails (like the famous Negroni, which I immediately fell in love with over here) signifies the lack of this flavor in the increasingly bitter-less Western cuisine. Funny, because the Italian craft beer movement has not yet embraced the “bracing” bitterness of a double hopped IPA. The flavor tends to go more towards balanced. Even, at least to my IPA-trained taste buds, to a malty-sweet aftertaste.

Listen to the podcast! You’ll be inspired to seek out the bitterness in life: for the sake of diversity, antioxidants, and excitement for your taste buds.


Cover photo of cavolo nero, or Tuscan kale, by Nick Saltmarsh, Creative Commons

 

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6 thoughts on “The Beauty of Bitter in Italian Food

  1. Hehe, you’ve chosen the perfect time to post about this subject. I’m no detox or fad diet fan but I’m a bit over panettone and other festivity sweets. Carnival, unfortunately though, is early this year so there’ll be little respite for those seeking a bit of bitter in their food intake.

    It’s interesting what people say about all tastes being acquired. When I started introducing solids to C, I always made sure that even if she didn’t seem to like something when I first gave it to her (by the way, I refused to puree things for her and make them supposedly more palatable to her), I persisted and, lo and behold, eventually she started eating most things (even bitter radicchio and acidic kiwi fruits) that made her make funny faces initially. Things may change but I’m very happy that she tries most things and seems to like tangy, umami (!) and bitter foods, not just sweet/ened things. I wish they would stop marketing sweet stuff to kids because they’re perfectly capable of acquiring the other tastes if we just gave them the chance.

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    1. Good for you, not giving in to the easy, sweetened version of baby and kids’ food! That’s great she’s beginning to enjoy new flavors. “Educating” taste buds early is so important.

      I’m not over the panettone yet…in fact, I wish it were available all year long 😛 Though I guess it wouldn’t be quite so special.

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  2. I think it may be Americans’ addiction to sweet that leaves bitter out in the cold. But, I for one am a fan of darker and more bitter chocolate, pungent cheese, greens that really taste, for lack of a better word, green! A friend brought me a digestivo from his time in Naples called Mirto (probably not spelled correctly), which really had a serious bite to it, but it was so nice to drink after a rich meal!

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  3. Great post! Really smartly written. Lots to remember here! I am definitely a bitter-loving person, but until I read your post I guess I would have described myself as not having a sweet tooth. Just like not being a morning person, I always feel like the odd duck, especially in the U.S., ha! Now I feel a little less odd, thanks. 🙂

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    1. I have both–a sweet tooth and bitter palate! You’re lucky not to have much of a sweet tooth. But yes, the US loves their sweets (I do like to think my sweet tooth has moderated a little bit compared to some desserts I’ve tried over there during my last visits…but maybe that’s just wishful thinking).

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