Come early evening, around six o’clock, when the sun is still strong but a cool breeze begins to lift the heat of the day, Italians gather at the local bar for aperitivi. Sitting under striped awnings, they sip from wine glasses full of a light, sparkling drink made from seltzer water and mild bitter preparations. The glasses vary in color from dark brown, through red, and into an almost electric orange, reflecting the ingredients they contain. These drinks are preferred over strong cocktails, and are really the beginning of the evening meal as they support digestion and can help prevent indigestion and heartburn.
After the aperitivi, a short walk through narrow streets leads to the main restaurant, where the real eating begins: three, often four courses featuring rich cream and meat sauces, lots of prosciutto and thin cuts of beef, plenty of seafood and crisp vegetables. Visitors are often encouraged try aperitivi, as the rich (and abundant) combinations of food can be too much for the digestion, and the bitter drinks before meals really help.
After dinner, many finish with a short glass of amaro, a stronger preparation that still features bitter roots and leaves. These formulas immediately relieve heartburn and over fullness, ensuring a restful and pleasant night following the big meal. Aperitivi or amari have a standard template: something bitter like gentian root, or artichoke leaf or dandelion is combined with something aromatic like citrus peel, fennel seed, or angelica root. Aperitivi often feature a little more of the latter: sour and warm chinotto oranges, orange peel of Campari, or clove and cardamom of Crodino. These aromatic ingredients serve to relieve nausea, relax the belly, dispel bloating, and, blended with bitters, get us ready to eat well. Amari are usually more bitter, helping to resolve symptoms that come from overeating, exposure to new or unusual foods, or just poor digestion.
It’s interesting to note that this basic formula is hardly unique to Europe. Bitter oranges, still used for Italian aperitivi, are descendants of Chinese Citrus trifoliata, a classic aromatic-bitter remedy. In India, digestive remedies are still prepared from chiretta (Andrographis) and fennel seed, combining a very bitter plant with a warm, relaxing aromatic. These combinations stimulate digestive function while also relaxing the belly, easing gas pains, and alleviating nausea. They are important cultural adjuncts to full, delicious, rich meals, and their use is valued to this day.
The term “bitters” derives its name from the flavor of an herbal combination used to prevent or soothe digestive discomforts. Drinking bitters before and after meals has been a tradition in Europe and the Southern Americas for centuries. It’s time that America adopt this healthy tradition, especially around the holidays, when we tend to eat a combination of starchy, rich and fatty foods. This month, give Urban Moonshine’s Bitters formulas a try. You can find it on Peoples’ shelves at a 15% discount! It’s even available in a convenient travel spray size.
by Guido Masé RH (AHG) – Chief Herbalist at Urban Moonshine
Guido Masé is a clinical herbalist, herbal educator and garden steward specializing in holistic Western herbalism, though his approach is eclectic and draws upon many influences. Guido works clinically and teaches at the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism (vtherbcenter.org), holds the position of Chief Herbalist at Urban Moonshine, is a professional member of the American Herbalists Guild and is a part of United Plant Savers and the American Botanical Council and author of The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter and Tonic Plants — This article is brought to you by Urban Moonshine, makers of Organic Digestive Bitters in Original, Maple and Citrus flavors!