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Lemons are sour, lemon zest is bitter. In a restaurant meal, bitter items might include: Campari spritzer, caramelised crust of sourdough dunked into peppery olive oil, 70% cocoa solids chocolate mousse, cheese with a bitter finish such as Cornish Kern, espresso and amaro (bitter) digestif to finish. Bartenders love bitters and they enable drinks producers to create adult-tasting tipples for the rising number of teetotallers. Think of Seedlip’s non-alcoholic Nogroni or Lyre’s Italian Orange Campari-style spirit. Then there are exciting British launches inspired by our ongoing love of Italian flavours; Sacred Drinks Rosehip Cup Campari-style spirit and Cotswolds Distillery’s new Amaro No. 1 whisky liqueur are two examples. As for home-grown inspiration, there’s Rosebud Preserves Seville Orange Marmalade Gin Liqueur.
I’ve heard consumers are switching to dark chocolate in droves.
You’re right. There’s a growing market for the ‘dark milk’ (no legal definition) category, where bitterness balances the sweetness and creaminess contributed by a little added sugar and milk. Consumers are eating more between meals since the pandemic, and 43% of munchers regard a 70%-plus cocoa solids bar as a healthy snack. They are motivated by less added sugar and dark chocolate’s powerful antioxidants and flavonoids.
Sorry, I think most very high cocoa solids chocolate tastes awful.
If you or your customers have been underwhelmed, get tasting. It was a revelation to Trend Watch to sample Amedei Toscano Black 90% dark chocolate. It leaves the mouth feeling clean and is very smooth and creamy considering the high cocoa percentage. Castronovo Chocolate 63% Sierra Nevada, an Academy of Chocolate Awards overall winner last year, is an excellent example of the dark milk genre. Silvija Davidson, organiser of the Academy of Chocolate Awards says, “A great chocolate bar never worships at the altar of bitterness – it’s there to reflect the nature of the bean, to prevent any sweetness and creaminess from cloying – in short, a sine qua non of a satisfying taste experience.”
Is a taste for bitter a sign we’re growing up?
As we age, we lose taste buds so seek out foods that stimulate in ways we enjoy. Gourmets of any age seek novelty, which is not provided by sweet, salty ready meals and greens bred to be ever sweeter.
Talking of greens, we’re eating more bitter leaves like kale, aren’t we?
Clever marketing explains the rise of kale, but not the increased popularity of radicchio, frisee, chicory, endive, Brussels sprouts, mesclun mix, cardoons, white asparagus and turnips. “We’re selling stupid amounts of Trevisan radicchio this year,” reports Dani Herreros, assistant manager of Hamish Johnston cheesemongers in London’s Battersea. Strong-tasting cime di rape, rapini or broccoli di rape – variously translated as turnip tops or mustard greens – are addictive once tried.
Why should I eat turnip tops when I can eat sticky toffee pudding?
Boycott bitterness and you limit your flavour portfolio, as food lover and cook. You also miss the opportunity to balance sweet, rich foods with bitter ones and give your cooking depth and complexity. To experience the pleasurable stimulation of sharp, bitter, sweet and salt bouncing off each other, try a spoonful of Rosebud Preserves Seville Orange Marmalade on a Ritz cracker.
Is there another reason for the bitterness trend?
Yes, health. Starting a meal with a salad of bitter leaves whets the appetite while a digestif aids efficient digestion; without it, we can’t extract all the nutrients out of food.
I’ve heard the punchier an olive oil, the great the concentration of polyphenols. Is that right?
Yes. Expert Judy Ridgway, co-author of The Olive Oil Diet advises: “Most strong olive oils are both bitter and peppery and it’s a myth that the British don’t like them.” She recommends, in the medium to strong category, De Carlo Terra di Bari DOP from Puglia imported by Peregrine Trading and Frantoi Cutrera Primo Organic Monte Iblei from Sicily. Bravoleum Picual from Jaen Spain – imported by Mar de Olivos – is another worth trying.
How can we make the ‘bitter’ trend work for sales?
Stock foods people have enjoyed on holiday or in restaurants but can’t get at Sainsbury’s or Waitrose. Strong olive oil and cime di rape present great opportunities. Remind customers of health benefits. Did you know the flavonoids in even decaffeinated coffee protect against heart disease and Type 2 diabetes? Appeal to shoppers’ pandemic wish to buy British. We love the amaro liqueur Londonio, and Dispense British Amaro by Asterley Bros.
Will this trend last?
It’s hard to predict anything at present. For example, the marmalade category is in decline but Rosebud report lively sales during the pandemic as older customers learn how to order online, food gifts are sent and consumers linger over breakfast. What we do know is that people are drinking more cocktails, buying themselves more treats and experimenting more in the kitchen. When the next trip to New York or Rome feels very far away, a homemade Manhattan or a salad of griddled radicchio reminds us of holidays. Health continues to be a priority and bitter foods have proven health benefits.