Learning to love the taste of bitter with an Adelaide Writers’ Week lunch at Osteria Oggi.
It’s festival time in the party town and last week I indulged in what is easily my very favourite part of Adelaide’s Festival of Arts – Adelaide Writers’ Week. Every major Australian city has a writers and readers festival these days, but Adelaide’s is generally held to be the best, not least because it is absolutely free. This six day event is held under the shade in the historic Women’s Memorial Gardens in the centre of the city, with the writers speaking, reading and answering questions at two separate stages. The event is generally complemented by a few extra paid events and this year one of those was a lunch, held at Osteria Oggi, with a menu based around ex-pat Australian chef Jennifer McLagan’s newest book, “Bitter” (Murdoch Books).
Australian-born and raised McLagan has lived in Canada for over 30 years and is the author of several esteemed, single-themed cook books including the James Beard award-winning “Fat”, “Bones” and “Odd Bits”. “Bitter” is her study of what she calls “the world’s most dangerous flavour” and in the book she explores this flavour profile. She looks at bitter through the lenses of science, culture and history, explaining it’s place on our palates and plates.
Our misgivings about eating bitter foods is completely logical and hard-wired into us. We have a great many bitter receptors on our tongues – more than for other flavours – in order to protect us from toxins, many of which are bitter. However, a diet with out bitterness would be one without a very desirable depth and complexity. A small amount of bitterness on the plate can balance sweetness, cut through fat and give an added dimension to a dish. It is also an appetite stimulant and an aid to digestion, properties both well understood by the Italians with their fondness for Campari and Fernet-Branca.
If you stop to think about it, the taste of bitter already holds a firm place in the hearts of many of us. It is found in coffee, the tannins in tea, chocolate and red wine and, of course, beer. Many everyday foods have a bitter flavour including nuts, broccoli, rocket, silverbeet and some citrus. Equally, many culinary traditions have included it in their repertoire – tamarind paste, turmeric, bitter melons – all popular in Asian and Indian dishes; rapini, chicory and amaretti – standards in many Italian dishes.
However, bitterness is gradually being engineered out of many of our foods in the search for more accessibly palatable items. When was the last time you saw one of those big, pale, bitter grapefruit that were so popular in the 1970’s? It would be a great loss to our palates and to plant diversity if we were to yield to blandness and, given that bitterness is also an indicator of high amounts of antioxidants, also something of a loss to our health.
Bitterness in a dish doesn’t have to whack the diner in the face and it was sublimely accommodated in the sophisticated lunch menu served at Oggi. Chef Andy Davies put together a bill of fare that appealed to even the most timid of diners with dishes like smoked snapper with beer jelly, raviolo of bitter greens, Fernet-Branca chicken livers, coffee and cardamom sweetbreads, witlof and anchovy salad and capped it off with a darkly delicious chocolate tart and a surprising tobacco panna cotta.
After the meal, Jennifer spoke for some time about her work around the book “Bitter”, as well as her other books, and her long career in food, both in Australia and internationally.
I can highly recommend the book “Bitter” for those who want to explore this flavour a little more. It demystifies much about bitterness, clarifying the science and secrets of just how we taste and what impacts upon that and then inspires with a selection of recipes showing just how deliciously simple it can be to incorporate it into our food.