Friday, June 3, 2011

Sometimes Bitter is Better: My First Experience of Underberg Bitters

Ask someone in the United States their favorite flavor and you'll likely hear 'sweet' or 'salty.' Once in a blue moon, you'll run across a 'sour' lover - that rare individual who just can't get enough pickles and Lemonheads - but I've never, ever run across a person who prefers bitter flavors above all else. We are, by and large, a nation of sweet-tooths and salt cravers, and a walk through the snack section of any American grocery store will quickly prove this point - Little Debbie, Hershey's and Mars cater to the sweet lovers, while salt cravings are satisfied by Lays, Planter's and Oberto. Even our restaurants trade on these preferences, and food industry insiders often refer to the crave-inducing trifecta of sugar, fat and salt.

I specified American grocery store because I do think some taste preferences are culturally induced (how else do you explain a Korean's love of kimchi, or the British obsession with Marmite?), but I think a disinclination towards bitter foods goes much deeper than a lack of experience and exposure. For years, scientists have asserted that the human ability to taste bitter is a survival mechanism; many harmful substance in nature have a bitter taste, and the synthetic chemical denatonium, the most bitter substance known to man, is added to man-made toxic substances as an aversive agent to prevent swallowing.

With scientific evidence supporting our natural aversion to bitter things, why should we bother with bitter at all? Well, it turns out that some surprisingly common foods owe their unique flavors to bitterness.  Ever savored a square of strong dark chocolate or tasted unsweetened cacao powder? Made a salad of escarole or radicchio? Snacked on olives or cooked up Brussels sprouts, spinach, cabbage or kale? If you've tasted these, you've tasted bitter - and chances are, you're better off for it. Far from being harmful or poisonous, some of these bitter foods are remarkably good for you. In fact, just as long as people have been asserting the harmfulness of bitter foods, others have been touting their health benefits. Chocolate in its purer states is reputedly loaded with antioxidants, spinach is rich in iron, and the bitter, cruciferous family of vegetables is said to lower cancer risks.

While the science behind these claims may be recent, the practical application isn't. One example of this is in the enduring use of the aperitif. In Europe, tinctures of bitter herbs have been used to treat digestive ailments for centuries - possibly predating the Roman Empire.  It's from the Romans, though, that these various solutions derived their current name. These strongly alcoholic beverages (usually between 30-70% proof) are meant to be consumed sparingly and medicinally and are also often called...bitters.

Lest you begin to worry that I'm a closet alcoholic - or that I have chronic digestive troubles (neither of which is true!) - I assure you that I'd never heard of bitters before a particularly leisurely trip to the grocery store last week! I'm a grocery store tourist; in any new town or country, the grocery store is usually the first place I'll want to go to learn more about my surroundings.  Where else can you get such a clear, honest, and unrestricted picture of local life, with all its indulgences and habits? Where better to discover an area's signature treats or to find great, edible souvenirs for friends and family? Matt finds my enthusiasm for grocery store tourism amusing, but I also know that hours of combing the aisles can be annoying so I've learned to save my 'sightseeing' trips for times when he's otherwise occupied.

With all the craziness of house-hunting and getting settled into our new town, my inaugural grocery store exploration was long overdue, so I made a point to set aside some time for 'shopping' last week. It's probably not surprising that my favorite aisle is the international foods aisle (some of you might have been expecting the candy or baking aisle, but I don't usually let myself wander into such dangerous territory alone and, in any case, they don't keep the Cadburys there!). I've been known to come home with bags of things that look 'interesting' (dried mung beans or canned octopus, anyone?), so by comparison, a small box of a German herbal digestif called Underberg seemed positively normal.

It wasn't until I got home that I realized my impulse purchase was alcoholic (perhaps the ethereal, Absinthe-looking fairy on the box should have tipped me off) or that the little green box actually contained three, tiny, single-portion bottles of this intriguing herbal draught. I thought a quick search of the Underberg website would be more revealing, but only learned that the drink is blended from a selection of 43 aromatic herbs and that the process, and the ingredients, are a closely-guarded proprietary secret. So much for enlightenment!

Undeterred by such a paucity of information, I prepared for my first Underberg experience.  In order to get the full digestif effect, I opened the first little bottle after a particularly satisfying visit to our local Chinese buffet (see what sacrifices I make for my research!). Made of brown glass and wrapped in paper, each tiny bottle is covered in a shiny green label and topped with a distinctive green-and-red cap.  These caps, I learned, can be collected and sent in to claim all sorts of prizes and Underberg memorabilia - from specially-fashioned drinking glasses (96 tops), to decks of cards (also 96 tops), china plates (384 tops) and even a dedicated Underberg serving bar (which will set you back 480 tops!!!).  Clearly this strange little drink has quite a following.

A little intimidated by my online research (some tasters described the drink as 'caustic' - yikes!), I twisted off the top and timidly took a sip. The first taste is heavily floral, but with a throat-numbing sensation that, I assume, was the alcohol going down. I'm not used to strong alcohol, or much alcohol at all, so I'm afraid this dominated my experience of the drink, but the flavor wasn't unpleasant - strongly herbal with notes of anise, clove, and possibly even wormwood and juniper berries. Without a doubt, the drink is medicinal (the makers advise drinking it all at one, as opposed to sipping from the tiny bottle) and I can see why some might be put off.  Still, it reminded me pleasantly of the strong black licorice I enjoyed in Finland, my favorite Colgate Herbal toothpaste (which I still can't find in the States!), or the thimbleful of Becherovka I was once given on a visit to the Czech Republic. If you like dark licorice, anise or herbal teas, you'll probably do fine with Underberg.

So much for the flavor, but what about the digestive claims? Well, I can't be sure, but the fact that I was able to sit up and write, rather than curl up tightly, nursing a food hangover means there just might be some effect to back up their assertion. In any case, it was a fun and interesting experiment and one that's convinced me that, sometimes, bitter really might be better.

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