Bitter is better

October 13, 2010

This week I learned something new: sweetness counteracts bitterness.

Ah, lessons for life, you might be thinking. But I’m talking about soup.

Now you all probably knew this sweet-bitter thing years ago, but I didn’t, and am constantly surprised by how happy the discovery of such a simple thing makes me.

My adventures in bitterness began when leafing through the fabulous Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells (given me by the Empress, so it must be good), I came across a recipe for watercress and potato  soup. Sounded delicious, and it was, but only once I’d managed to figure out how to balance out the bitterness. Not sure what I did wrong, because Patricia mentions nothing about bitterness. It could have been the cress itself, of course.

Or it could be that I am what’s known as a supertaster, as explained to me by the Parsnip Princess ages ago during her research for a story on tastebuds for Good Weekend magazine, when I was one of her guinea pigs sucking on small strips of paper with various odious flavours.  “Hmm, looks like you could be a supertaster,” she said, peering down at her notes. “Well,” I laughed modestly, “I always secretly thought I perhaps might be a just little superior-” , but that’s when she interrupted: “It’s not a good thing.”

Around a quarter of people are supertasters, apparently, which means we have more tastebuds than the rest of you, resulting in distorted sense of various flavours (and as the princess  informed me – a little too smugly I thought – chefs are generally not supertasters). One of the flavours we most over-detect is bitterness. Now, please don’t tell any of the bakeoff contestants about my supertasting deficiencies, and in fact I have doubts about my status, because according to this site supertasters are supposed to dislike coffee and dark chocolate, both of which I adore. So who knows.

But whatever the status of my tastebuds, the fact remained that my watercress soup was too bitter. I didn’t think the stems were woody so didn’t discard them, but perhaps a few more needed chucking. I got online and discovered that the way to counteract bitterness was to add sugar, so that’s what I did. Seemed odd to put sugar in a soup – but it did work. Still, depending on one’s particular fondness for bitterness, I thought even a little more sweetness might be needed. That’s when I remembered Skye Gyngell’s pickled pear relish.

Skye Gyngell, you will recall, is the author of this fabulous book and one of my favourite cookery writers. She adds this relish to several things including the cauliflower and gorgonzola soup in the link above (more on cauli love later).

I made the relish, with a little adaptation in the cooking time, and added a dollop to my next bowl of watercress soup. The combination was absolutely startling. The bitterness of the soup was still there as a kind of dusky undertone, but the caramelised, sticky relish gave the whole dish a kind of bejewelled zing  I absolutely loved. So, supertaster or no, I have decided that bitter is better so long as there’s a little bolt of complex sweetness somewhere along the line. Here’s the combination for you to try yourself. Love to hear if you try it, and what you think.

Pickled pear relish – adapted from Skye Gyngell’s recipe

  • 2 tablespoons dried cranberries
  • 1 tablespoon currants
  • 75 ml red wine vinegar
  • 2 pears
  • 1 apple
  • peppercorns (I used only a single peppercorn of this beautiful Tasmanian native pepperberry given me by my sisters recently – I have never gotten into fancy peppers or salts, but this is brilliant stuff, very hot and slightly fruity and chewy. You use about a tenth of the normal pepper amount.)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 25g butter
  • thyme
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • olive oil

1. Soak the dried fruit in the red wine vinegar for  a few minutes to soften.

2. Core and roughly chop the pears & apple, leaving the skin on.

3. Melt butter over a low heat and toss in the fresh fruit, cooking for a few minutes before adding all the other ingredients and cooking till very soft.

Now, the recipe says to cook for a further 8-10 minutes, but I cooked it over a low heat for much longer – around 45 minutes  – until the fruit was soft, adding olive oil now and then when it got too sticky. Perhaps my pears weren’t ripe enough – the recipe says to use very ripe pears – and so the long cooking was needed to get the fruit very soft. But it also made for a lovely jammy, sticky relish. Remove the cinnamon stick at the end before putting into a sterilised jar and keeping in the fridge.

Watercress & potato soup a la Patricia Wells

  • 2 bunches watercress
  • 50g butter
  • 1kg potatoes, peeled & cut into 2cm cubes
  • 2litres chicken stock
  • salt & pepper

1. Wash & pick over the watercress, discarding any woody stems & leaves that are past it (and watch out for tiny slugs – they won’t taste good). Roughly chop the cress.

2. Melt butter in a large pot and add the cress, cooking for several minutes until thoroughly wilted.

3. Add potatoes, stock & salt to taste (if using shop-bought stock, watch the salt until later).

4. When potatoes are very soft, whizz the soup with a stick blender or food processor till smooth.

5. Serve with a dollop of the relish, and swoon.

V: Simply swap the chicken stock in the soup for vegetable.


  1. Love that pear chutney. Were your cranberries sweetened? hard to get them otherwise for some reason- perhaps the whistle marks around the mouths of those who tried them the other way.

    Wonderful green! The bitter could have been the cress – ours here tends to be sold a bit more mature and pepperier sometimes. Unless you economised by finding it by side of road, in which case it was stinkweed.

    Pears can have a marvellously subtle but interesting taste, pear gelato- easy to make with a gadget- can get folk guessing.

    I resort to maple syrup if something is too bitter, or coconut in curries.

  2. I think the ancient cuisines of the world have something sensible to tell us on this front – achieving a perfect balancing act is one of the basic tenets of Chinese cooking, from what I understand.

    Brown sugar is a bit of a Bandaid in my kitchen, and honey, but I admit I am at heart a bitter broad…

  3. Glad to see you’re getting some use from the wondrous P. Wells, Charlotte. Another thing which you probably already know is that these flavours work in reverse. eg strawberries taste sweeter and more strawberry-ish with some lemon juice or balsamic vinegar. Ditto mango with a squeeze of lime. Anything that’s shaping up to be just blandly sweet gets a real lift from some acid. I know we’re talking sour rather than bitter here but, hey, let’s not split hairs.

  4. Jules, I dunno if the cranberries are sweetened or no, have never looked. Probably? And good point about the stinkweed – we do have a little bit of slimy cress growing in the fish pond, but so far I haven’t ventured there. Great idea re maple syrup, I should have thought of that given Skye Whatsy’s obsession with it. And thanks Di & Steph – I think I have always known about acid & sugar – all that yummy citrus in cakes and so on – but am probably the only one in the village who didn’t realise this about bitterness. And Patricia Wells is THE business Steph, as you know. Am working my way through her yummo book slowly ….

  5. Dried Cranberries often have sugar, and even oil added. Got some celestial blueberries without either for my roll your own muesli.

  6. […] really discussed chutneys and pickles much here at How to Shuck An Oyster, have we? Apart from this pickled pear relish (see how confusing the lingo is?), and a very brief link to the unquestionably good Manfield […]

  7. […] sweet Citrus with vanilla.      Want a different taste to go on your Cheese platter?  Make a pickled pear relish!       Hosting a shrimp boil?  Quick pickle some fresh […]

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