This post is part of the UK Herbal blog party on bitters hosted by Debs Cook at Herbaholics Herbarium.
January, especially when blessed with snow and ice, can often make you feel like hibernating for the rest of the winter. The midwinter festivities may also have left you with digestive stagnation from all the wonderful food and treats consumed. Whether we like it or not, January is a perfect time to start a new relationship with bitters. There is every likelihood they can promote a healthy digestive system and even lighten your mood, helping you to work your way towards Spring in the most positive way possible.
If you are new to the concept of bitters and maybe feel sceptical about the idea of a national “Bitters Deficiency Syndrome”, I suggest you read Jim MacDonald’s excellent article, “Blessed Bitters”. I have written a previous article about the bitters I know. You can also find further discussions about bitters on the Herbwifery Forum and the August 2008 blog party .
One major difficulty in introducing bitters into your diet at this time of year is the absence of fresh greens. You could go to the shops and buy watercress and other bitter salad greens, but salads may not be your first choice of food during cold weather.
There is another food group which is in season at the moment which we may not think of in terms of bitters, but is easily available - citrus. Grapefruit, oranges and lemons can all be used to make bitter tinctures or liqueurs with equal effectiveness providing the bitter taste is not masked by sweetness in the liqueur.
Oranges, especially Seville oranges used for marmalade, make a useful bitter tincture. Other sweet oranges can also provide a bitter component if the peel is used with the white pith left intact. Lemon peel can be used in the same way, to make a “cooler” bitter. I often add fresh or dried citrus peel to teas and elixirs to add an extra “umph” to the mixture.
Here is a selection of recipes from various herbalists which use citrus and other warming bitters which are helpful for this time of year.
Grapefruit bitter aperitif (Rebecca Hartman)
Slice up some grapefruit peel and remove most of the white pith. Put the slices of peel in a pot with enough water to cover them by about an inch. Add a pinch of salt. Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer it for 15 minutes or so. Drain the peels and set aside the cooking water to make liqueur. Return the peels to the pot, add fresh water, bring it to a boil, and simmer it for another 15 minutes. Drain again (don’t forget to reserve the cooking water).
Bring all the reserved cooking water to a boil and reduce it by about a third. Now add 2/3 cup sugar per cup of water. Stir to dissolve. Let it cool and then add 1 cup of vodka per cup of liquid. You need to allow plenty of time both for the reserved cooking water to reduce and for the sugar water mixture to cool. Pour finished bitter into a glass jar with a screw top lid, label and date. When using, take about a shot glass full or less and add fresh grapefruit juice. It tastes wonderful!
Seville Orange bitter (Julie Bruton-seal)
Fill an empty jam jar loosely with the peel of a couple of Seville oranges, a tablespoonful of cardamon pods, and a few fennel or anise seeds. If you wish, add a clove or two - but not too many as they are strong. Add a tablespoon of honey, and top the jar up with vodka (or brandy, whisky or rum if you prefer). Keep in a dark cupboard for a month, shaking occasionally, then strain off and bottle the liquid. Take half a teaspoonful before meals to improve digestion.
Bitter tincture (Jim Macdonald)
Dandelion root (mixture of roasted and raw or dried) (Use gentian or yellow dock root if available)
1tsp dried ginger or ½-1 inch root ginger
Fill a glass jar with chopped root and peel, cover with vodka for 3 weeks in dark cold place, strain and use. Dose is 15-30 drops 15 minutes before eating or after a heavy meal to release stagnant feeling
Chamomile bitter (Jim Macdonald)
1oz dried chamomile flowers
32 fluid ounces just boiling water
Steep flowers in water overnight.
Dose is 1fl oz taken cold. Freeze remainder in 1fl oz portions and use as necessary.
Bitter tea (Kristena Haslam)
Milk thistle seed
Cover with cold water, bring to the boil in covered saucepan and simmer for 20-30 minutes. Strain and drink.
Demulcent bitter tea (Darcey Blue French)
2 tsp flax seed
Bitter roots (dandelion, burdock, elecampane, angelica either one or a combination)
Warming spices (cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, etc.)
Place in small saucepan and fill with cold water. Heat uncovered and simmer for half an hour until liquid in saucepan has reduced by half. Strain and drink
Bittersweet digestive and immune tonic (David Essig-Beatty)
Mix tinctures of burdock root and fennel in equal proportions.
Dose: 30 drops 15 minutes before meals.