Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Citric Bitters

You might not know it from the scarcity of posts on the subject, but I am currently undertaking the second year of a herbal apprenticeship with Sarah Head who styles herself as a Kitchen Herbwife but basically it is a course in the wildcrafting, growing and application of  traditional medicinal herbal medicine - I prefer the old term for it - wortcunning.
From wort, a plant, herb, or vegetable, used for food or medicine; often = pot-herb but not in ordinary use after the middle of the 17th cent. and now arch. As a second element, however, retained in various plant names, as colewort, liverwort, ragwort etc. And cunning, another obsolete word meaning knowledge; learning, erudition.
The training comes in the form of monthly tasks both practical and theoretical, medical and herbal, based around the seasonal opportunities in the natural way.

Although I quite frequently do the tasks, I am hopelessly slack about writing them up. This is daft really since I enjoy the whole subject and I love finding occasions when modern science confirms traditional practice, and then correlating that with folklore and myth.

Anyway back in January we were tasked with making up citric bitters, specifically Seville orange bitters. Most of us know bitters, Orange Bitters or Angoustura Bitters as digestifs; the alcoholic beverages served after a meal to aid digestion. And they do do that.

According to Jim MacDonald “Bitter herbs stimulate the secretion of digestive acids, juices and enzymes, which generally improve appetite & digestion, especially of fats/oils/lipids." His excellent article "Blessed Bitters" is more than worth a read for what bitter deficiency syndrome is all about and which herbs  might remedy it. There are many more of them (like dandelion and chicory) than just the citrus ones that we might know about as a nice tipple. Historically a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables at this time of year would have been a pressing nutritional concern and our bodies would cry out to be renourished. However my well-fed family seems to appreciate the concoctions I make if they are nice tipples, rather more than those that aren't!

Seville oranges are the oranges that we know very well as the ones that go into English Breakfast marmalade. (Don't start me on marmalade which comes from the marmello or quince not the orange. That must be the subject of another post!)

Sevilles are available for only a very short season of two or three weeks in late January/ early February. Blink and you'll miss them in the shops. Given that I did blink at the critical moment so missed them entirely, I was wondering whether to 'fess up' to Sarah, when I came across a bountiful supply of deeply reduced-price lemons and limes that Tesco was divesting itself of! So I bought about six or 8 bags.

Given that bitters are made from the zest rather than the fruit, I cast about for a recipe for a lemon cordial to preserve the lovely fresh juice. I used this one as the base (although I replaced the tartaric acid with cream of tartar) and multiplied up the quantities and incorporated the limes.

Lemon  Cordial 

  • 750 ml fresh lemon juice 
  • 550 g sugar
  • 3/4 tablespoon citric acid 
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons tartaric acid 
  • 1 tablespoon boiling water 

  • Mix the citric acid and tartaric acid with the boiling water and stir until it’s dissolved. 
  • Put a large saucepan on a low heat and add the lemon juice and sugar. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. 
  • Add the citric acid/tartaric acid mix and stir in well. 
  • Strain through a couple of layers of a clean muslin cloth into sterilized bottles. Cap with lids or corks and seal. 
  • When opened, store in the fridge.
This cordial is concentrated and should be served diluted with water to taste. It can be sweetened further if desired. It's delicious served icy cold with fizzy water or tonic water as a grown-up non-alcoholic cocktail.

Having squeezed a mountain of lemons and limes, I made the bitters part tinctured in vodka, using the zest of the fruit as a classic Italian Limoncello - a  digestivo as you might say.

So I used this recipe which is supposed to be the traditional Limoncello from Sorrento, Amalfi or Capri.



  • 1 Litre of Vodka (37-40%Vol) 
  • 10 Lemons (possibly organic) 
  • 350 g Granulated sugar 
  • 150 ml Water 
For this recipe you also need a 2-3 litre jar with a sealed lid. The jar should be washed very well or sterilised before use. 

Note: About the sugar, some people like the limoncello sweeter and use 450 g of sugar. This is up to personal taste and preference. 


1. Rinse the lemons under running water. 
Organic lemons sometimes have soil residue, so rinse them, one by one, to be sure they are completely clean. Then, dry the lemons with kitchen paper. 

2. Now, it’s time to prepare the sugar syrup. Put all the sugar into a small pan, add the water and melt the sugar over very low heat. The melting should take a few minutes, meanwhile keep stirring and take care that the syrup does not reach boiling point.Soon you will notice that the syrup becomes clearer. At this point, turn the cooker off and leave the syrup to cool down. 

3. While the syrup is cooling down, cut the zest from your lemons, making small pieces, with a sharp knife or peeler. You need only the yellow /green part of the lemon skin, also known as rind. The pith, the white part underneath the rind, is too bitter and would spoil your limoncello. 

4. Put all the zest in the jar (unused lemons may be used to make a lemon sorbet or even lemonade). 

5. Pour the litre of vodka into the jar. 

6. Add the syrup (the syrup must be cool). When the syrup cools down, it is easy to find some of the sugar solidified in the bottom of the pan. Scrape the bottom with a wooden spoon and put this sugar into the jar. 

7. Now, that everything is in the jar, close the jar with its sealed lid. 

8. Put the jar in a cool and dark place for 30-40 days. 

9. Twice a week take the jar and put it onto a flat smooth surface. Then, with your hands spin the jar a few times, so all the contents are shaken up. Then, put the jar back to the cool and dark place. 

10. After 30-40 days, you can transfer the contents of the jar into a bottle. For this you need a funnel and something to filter the limoncello liqueur from the zest that is in the jar. A gauze or jelly bag filter would be fine. 

11. Now, pour the contents of the jar into the bottle. 

12. In the end, you should be left with a yellowish clear liqueur. 

13. With one litre of vodka, I managed to prepare 2 bottles of limoncello (about 70 cl each). 

14. Close the bottle with a cork and put the bottle in the fridge. Limoncello must be drunk chilled (but no ice cubes, as this will dilute the drink too much) and using chilled glasses when drinking it, will make it perfect. 

It needs to steep for at least six weeks which is why mine is still in the jars and not yet bottled. But I found a pretty bottle in a charity shop that would do the trick when it's ready.

I'll let you know whether it aids our digestion!


  1. Interesting post, Charlie. It's always good to discover more recipes! Lemons and limes are bitters in their own right, just a tad colder than an orange bitter and not quite so effective. Any chance you can bring us a taster of the lemoncello liqueur some time?

  2. Absolutely Sarah!I went freelance there, but hopefully along the same lines with the bitters. I shall bring you a taster. I hope it's as good as the limoncello I've had before. It works as a gorgeous ingredient in any number of iced desserts too!

  3. Oh these recipes sounds wonderful, Charlie! I must try them since I can't be at the Sanctuary Day:( I have never seen Seville oranges at all here in central Illinois, so had to improvise:) Enjoy your beverages, they sound lovely! xxx

  4. Please do! I improvised also and went Italiano! x

  5. Hello Charlie! Thank you for the Blessed Bitters ebook! Also, your article is wonderful! It was quite a treat to read and what great work! Just Lovely! x