I love bitters. Bitters are so insanely good for you, it’s ridiculous. What do I mean by bitters? Well, there are bitter elixirs that go into craft cocktails like Manhattans and then there are foods and drinks with bitter components. Like coffee, wine and tea. Foods with bitter components are things like kale, chard, cabbages, some citrus fruits, hearty lettuces, etc.
From my memory banks and personal experiences, Americans are extremely scared of bitter flavors and this makes me a bit tearful. Italians on the other hand, do not shy away from these flavors and compounds. Which is why I think they can get away with a lot of the things they do dietary which would drive nutrition authorities otherwise mad in the states. Why?
Bitters stimulate digestive juice flow. They stimulate the liver. They stimulate the gallbladder. They purify the body and the juices that they stimulate help break down fat and aid in digestion.
So meanwhile, there are sweet tooth Americans popping supplements, enzymes, tinctures from unregulated herbal shops, vitamins and the such while spending ridiculous amounts of money… to help all their digestive woes either “naturally” or pharmaceutical-ly….the Italians are enjoying life with copious amounts of delicious foods and alcohol and get away with hardly any scratches in comparison to our nutrition obsessed micromanaging American counterparts. I really think, that part of the key to understanding how exactly can Italians get away with their dietary lifestyle, is due to their courageous bitter consumption.
Think about it: coffee for breakfast, bitter leafy greens somewhere at lunch whether it’s arugula on a sandwich or cavolo nero (kale) in a winter soup and bitter cocktail aperitifs before dinner and bitter Amaro elixirs and more coffee after dinner. It is a bitter paradise if you ask me. I may be making generalizations and leaving out a few details (like the fact a large percentage of the Italian youth are not carrying on these food and dietary traditions/habits and don’t even know how to make ribollita and do eat packaged food and soggy pastas for lunch at times) but I do feel that I am getting to the heart of the matter- and that is Italian food and drink culture is essentially bitter.
Here are some common bitter Italian foods and some sweet facts about them:
Artichokes: Initially considered to be a native food to Sicily, artichokes actually appear in ancient Greek and Roman literature and were grown in Spain by the Moors as far back as 800 AD. Artichokes are especially good for liver cleansing and what do you know- the Italian alcoholic spirit Cynar is made with artichoke extracts. In Venice, I discovered my love for Cynar in Spritz form. Next time you want to order an Aperol Spritz- try asking for a Cynar Spritz instead. For your liver’s sake…
Broccoli: Like other vegetables in the Cruciferous family, broccoli originates from the mediterranean. Italians tend to eat the heirloom variety cime di rape in the Fall and Winter with Pugliese style Orecchiete (little ear) pasta in a dish called Orecchiete con Cime di Rapa. Broccoli is one of the healthiest vegetables in the world and boasts massive doses of folate, eye protecting nutrients like lutein and calcium. The ancient Romans prepared the purple sprouting variety by cooking it in wine and dressed with olive oil and garum, a fermented fish sauce which reportedly is still found today on modern Roman tables.
Arugula: Also known as Rocket and Rucola in Italian, this is a peppery, bitter semi-crunchy dry mustardy green leaf which I like to call “over-priced weeds” in America. In Italy, the stuff is cheap as it should be and I discovered my fondness for it underneath sliced Florentine steak (tagliata), under thin slices of cured beef bresaola (a Northern Italian treat), on pizza, in panini and as a pesto (try a arugula + pistachio nut pesto. It’s pretty damn tasty in pasta). However, the Ancient Romans and Egyptians apparently were also pretty fond of the stuff and considered it an “aphrodisiac.” Not so bitter after all, hmmmm….
Cabbage: Despite its sulfuric stench, this stuff will probably save your life if you make it apart of your varied diet. Cabbages are apart of the cruciferous family and umbrellas many vegetables under its name like cauliflower and kale. In Italian, cauliflower is cavolofiore and kale is cavolo nero. Cavolo meaning: cabbage. The middle ages used the stuff as healing tonics for fractures and wounds, then later treating sailors for scurvy and now it is touted for its cancer fighting compounds, high levels of vitamins and antioxidant phytochemicals- which are found in the pigment. The more colorful your cabbage, the healthier it is. Which also means- the more bitter it results. The Romans adored cabbage- they believed that it fought melancholy. Which is funny considering people get sad at the prospect of having brussel sprouts for dinner.
Radicchio: Radicchio in the states in a luxury produce item, ringing in at a whopping upwards of $8 a pound. I laugh, I cry. In open air markets and grocery stores across the bel paese, the bitter stuff made for your liver’s dreams comes out at about 40cents-1eu a head. Or in other words, about $1-3 (MAX) per pound. You may have seen radicchio on a trip or visit to the Veneto region as it is blended in with a variety of local dishes there from Risotto to rich salads and braised dishes involving fish in Treviso. Pliny the Elder gave the Egyptians credit for creating Radicchio from wild chicory varieties, it was the Italians who created modern varieties which we enjoy today. The sweetest fact: We can thank a little chemical called “Intybin” for the bitter flavor of radicchio. This little chemical stimulates the appetite, the digestive system and here’s the kicker: assists in proper functioning of the liver and purifying your blood.
Spinach: By now, most people know why spinach is so healthy. It is full of vitamin C, folate, caratenoids and calcium. Being the bitter fuel that it is, you may find it draped in the comfort of sweeter foods such as ricotta and pastry based quiches. Florence may have had a hand in making this bitter vegetable a hit across Europe when Caterina de Medici brought her favorite Italian foods like Spinach from her Florentine Medici homeland to France since she was married to Henry of Orleans (basically some boring regal French guy). So this is where the term “a la Florentine” was coined. Think: Eggs Florentine. This bitter leafy green was actually was put to use first by the Persians who incorporated it in even more bitter dishes like Kookoo Sabzi. From Iran, spinach traveled from China to Spain so that eventually the Italians could make a name for it and it is now known worldwide in a variety of Italian dishes like Gnudi, Ravioli, Pizza and more.
In love for eating your bitters,
For more about tasting bitters in Italy, consider my Aperitivo Tour. We taste lots of bitter spirits on this drink tour in Florence. Cheers!