The Art of Bitter.

As research for my upcoming book ‘The Drinking Woman’s Diet’, I’ve just finished reading Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavour’ by Jennifer McLagan.

I’m loving the research; one book or article leads to another and it gets more and more fascinating. Bitterness is interesting; the role it plays in stimulating the liver and helping digestion as well as adding complexity to the palate in food and in drink. Despite what my instagram feed might lead you to believe my exploration of bitterness is not limited just to tasting different aperitifs.

Bitter by Jennifer McLagan
Bitter by Jennifer McLagan

The book is amazing in several ways; first the intriguing subject matter, second the photos and, last but not least, the recipes. But it’s more than a recipe book. McLagan also talks about the history of taste and how the basic tongue model that I taught years ago for 4 basic tastes (sweet, acid, salty and bitter) is now out-dated, although she does agree that bitterness still hits us at the back of throat.

With her charming understated humour and personal anecdotes, the book is full of little nuggets of information such as how the herb rocket was considered an aphrodisiac and how children have more taste buds and are more sensitive to bitter as even a small amount of bitter poison can harm. She bemoans the fact that commercially grown fruit and veg aren’t as bitter as they used to be (yellow grapefruit for example). She also warns us not be too masochistic, bitterness can still be poison in excess.

Bitter chocolate one of the mouth watering photos from the book.
Bitter chocolate one of the mouth watering photos from the book.

As well as the history and philosophy of taste she looks at different ingredients and offers some really cool, often surprising recipes, tobacco panna cota anyone?

Of particular interest for wine tasters, she looks at different types of bitterness and how the boundary between bitter and harsh can be tricky – is it a taste or a sensation? Interesting for an analysis of tannins too. For those of us who struggle to interpret elusive aromas in wines: she shares the reassuring fact that the area in our brain where odour is detected is not well connected to our verbal centre – so now you know.

I’m not really a beer drinker, more of a wine and gin sipper, but amongst the bitter drinks she includes in her round up, she claims that a glass of bitter lager has more anti oxidants than in a glass of red wine or a cup of green tea and she extols the anti bacterial properties of hops. So when a new ‘bitter’ arrived on my desk it caught my attention, a chance to broaden my horizons, specially accompanied by the tag line ‘The Art of Lager’, as McLagan also mentions the importance of visual in tasting.

Lager and art? Well brewing like winemaking can be considered an art, but Paolozzi Lager is named after Eduardo Paolozzi, a Scottish artist from Italian parents, hence the rather un Scottish name. He believed in ‘Sublime in the Everyday’ creating art from the ordinary and is regarded by many as the ‘Father of Pop Art’.

A monumental drink
A monumental drink

Brewed by Scottish, English and Canadians at the family-owned Edinburgh Beer Factory, the lager is now being launched in London for the opening of the Whitechapel Gallery’s exhibition for the artist. Paolozzi is better known in London than in his hometown of Edinburgh. His massive artworks are to be found in the Tottenham Court Road Underground, the British Library, the new Design Museum in Kensington, Euston station, Pimlico station, the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Kew Gardens, as well as smaller artworks at The Ivy and Le Caprice restaurants. I hope they serve the lager there too, would be fun to sip it and look at his work.


The brewers claim the lager is not too bitter, but it is bitter enough for me to be perfectly refreshing. Perhaps I’m one of the ‘supertasters’ McLagan mentions – more research needs to be done!

Sipping the beer may not be speeding up my reading but I’m so taken with Mclagen’s writing I’ve just ordered her previous book ‘Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient‘ – another descriptor that we see in wine. Goodness knows when my book will get finished at this rate – delaying tactics or just an inquisitive mind?





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Latest Articles

Notice: Undefined index: HTTP_REFERER in /home/sites/ on line 120