A bitter revival

While we may think of bitters as just being one ingredient in a cocktail, the scraps of available evidence suggest they were and continue to be an integral part of the creation

Illustrations by Bett Norris

Illustrations by Bett Norris

The craft cocktail movement has blossomed over the past decade; gone are pitchers of Long Island iced teas, replaced by the Negroni, crowned the ‘trendiest’ drink of 2018. A rise in speakeasy bars and artisan spirit making has created a boom in cocktail originality, led by a new genre of highly respected creative; the mixologist.

Not content with just serving the classics, bartenders are selecting their spirits with care, blending flavours with lashings of originality, and finding ways to add their own signature flair. And at the heart of this movement? A rediscovered appreciation for the humble bitter.

Surrounded by a hundred different types of craft gin, suddenly the diminutive bottle of Angostura that’s spent 10 years lurking at the back of the drinks cabinet doesn’t quite seem to cut it. Enter a new wave of bitters, determined to make their mark in the cocktails of the modern quaffers.

Representing the UK is Bitter Union, a husband and wife team that crafts bitters in small batches in Hampshire. Inspired by the resurgence in bitters Tom and Lucy saw in the US and Canada, they began making their own bitters at home, infusing botanicals in high proof alcohol for around four weeks. They grow many of the ingredients such as rhubarb and thyme themselves, starting with robust flavours and then refining the taste.

The importance of bitters in cocktails shouldn’t be underestimated: “It’s almost like salt and pepper for drinks,”Tom explains.“Bitters are special in that they are able to enhance existing flavours in the overall drink while also adding a delicate aroma that then takes it up to the next level in terms of sensory experience.”

Here’s our guide to four key bitter cocktail ingredients:

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Gentian (root)

Growing across Europe, gentian is one of the most commonly used plants in medicinal and cocktail bitters. Considered a ‘cooling’ bitter, its root is used to treat everything from indigestion to skin conditions. In the cocktail world it’s also indispensable, found as a core ingredient in both Campari and Angostura bitters.

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Wormwood (leaves)

An aromatic bitter, it’s known for helping with appetite loss and indigestion, as well as for its anti-parasitic properties. Before hops became widespread, it was used to add bitterness to beer, and is an essential ingredient in absinthe (the latin name for the plant is Artemisia absinthium). It is often blamed for the drink’s hallucinogenic reputation.

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Cinchona (bark)

Growing in South America, this tree held an important historic role that bridges the worlds of medicine and cocktails.The source of quinine, a natural anti- malarial, led to the creation of a medicinal ‘tonic water’, consumed widely by British officers in India. Many found the tonic water too bitter and added gin to make it more palatable and a classic drink was created.

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Bitter orange (peel)

The peel of the bitter or Seville orange is believed to improve digestion and reduce constipation.You will find it as an ingredient in Angostura bitters and Triple Sec, and the addition of a few drops of a bitters blend based around this will elevate a gin and tonic to another level.

Words: Steph Wetherell

This is an extract from a feature in issue eight of Ernest Journal, on sale now.

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European idioms

The English language has its fair share of punchy idioms, but we think these continental phrases give our beaten-about-bushes and silver-lined clouds a run for their money.

Everything has an end, only the sausage has two.  ©  photos4design.com

Everything has an end, only the sausage has two. © photos4design.com

estar en el ajo

Spanish: ‘to be in the garlic

The explanation: Alluding to the most sought after of culinary ingredients, this phrase means ‘to be clued up’, often to information of a nefarious nature.

Our translation: In the know (shifty eyes and nose-tap required).

farsene un baffo

Italian: ‘to make a moustache

The explanation: It would appear that the humble lip warmer is of little interest in Italy, as this phrase means to consider something as insignificant or, to simply, not care.

Our translation: Whatever, everyone has a moustache these days.

was der bauer nicht kennt, frisst er nicht

German: ‘what the farmer doesn’t know, he doesn’t eat

The explanation: We all have one friend who wouldn’t dare expand their culinary palette beyond scrambled eggs on toast. This phrase is for them.

Our translation: Stop counting your chickens and try this avocado.

il ne faut pas pousser mémé dans les orties

French: ‘you shouldn’t push your gran in the stinging nettles

The explanation: A black-humoured way of saying don’t push your luck.

Our translation: Watch it, your gran is tougher than a navy seal.

tirer des plans sur la comète

French: ’To draw plans on the comet

The explanation: A wonderful way of expressing the ephemeral joy and uselessness of making plans around future successes. You might say it’s as silly as building castles in the air.

Our translation: ‘Life happens when you make plans, so don’t get carried away now.’

alles hat ein ende nur die wurst hat zwei

German: ’Everything has an end, only the sausage has two

The explanation: A rather humorous way of saying that everything has to come to an end, one thing is clear, we have much to learn from the humble sausage.

Our translation: ‘Everything must end, so have a sausage.’


Words: Matt Iredale

This originally featured in issue 8 of Ernest Journal, on sale now.

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The footpaths of Dungeness

Dungeness is a shingle promontory on the south coast of Kent. Technically a desert and the largest expanse of shingle in Europe, it’s not a traditionally beautiful location. Its vast flatness gives the illusion that nothing much grows there, two nuclear power stations dominate the skyline, and debris from the fishing industry litters the beaches, all of which act in stark contrast to the area’s nature reserve status. Here are just a handful of the compelling sites This Way explore on their Dungeness map.

Image courtesy of This Way

Image courtesy of This Way

1 Dungeness A and B

Two nuclear power stations and their trail of pylons dominate the skyline. Dungeness A has now been decommissioned, after being switched on in 1965, and is slowly being demolished. Its huge neighbour, Dungeness B, remains operational, powering 1.5 million of London’s 3.5 million households. As a visitor, the sheer proximity of the power stations can add an unsettling undertone, a reality that becomes especially stark when reading the ‘emergency procedures’ boards dotted around the estate. However, if you are lucky enough to spend a night in Dungeness, there is a gentle beauty in the mass of twinkling lights.

2 The Boil

Out to sea, just in front of the power stations, The Boil is a bubbling mass of water. It’s easy to spot as it’s usually surrounded by a cloud of seabirds. Nuclear power stations use 100 million litres of water per hour; when the water has run through the cooling system it’s pumped back into the ocean, now a warm 12ºC. Sadly small fish get caught in the filters and are pumped back into the ocean through the same pipes, creating a rich feeding ground for seabirds.

3 Old Lighthouse

The drift of shingle has reshaped the land enough times that five lighthouses have been and gone since the 1600s. Historically, lighthouses have been vital on this headland, which has been a hotspot for shipwrecks. Today, two lighthouses remain. A walk up the 169 steps to the top of the no-longer operational Victorian ‘Old Lighthouse’ gives impressive views across the shingle ridges.

The Dungeness Map, by This Way, is a double-sided map detailing 11 points of interest in this curious place, £5. This Way also offers six- and 12-month map subscriptions where every month a postcard featuring a walk and stories from across the UK is delivered to your door; this-way.co

Tarpology: how to pitch a tarp

Lightweight, packable and easy to pitch (once you know how), bikepacker Laurence McJannet is your guide to the humble tarp

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While a tarp lacks the insulating and wind blocking properties of a tent, it’s the type of shelter bikepacker Laurence McJannet always takes on his journeys. “A one-man tarp can pack down to the size of your fist and weighs almost nothing so it’s perfect for hiking and bikepacking, particularly when teamed with a bivvy bag,” he says. Read on for Laurence’s tips for pitching a tarp…


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Travelling solo with a bike

All you need is a 2x3m tarp, your bike, pegs and short lines. First, remove your bike’s front wheel and rotate the pedals parallel to the ground. Push the fork dropouts into the earth, using the bars to support one end of your tarp. Peg out the other end over your spare wheel, angling it away from the tarp for support. Finally, peg out the four corners with lines long enough to roll in on one side (the bottom of the tarp should be about 50cm off the ground).


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Sheltering in a group

A 5m rectangular tarp is a perfect shelter with plenty of headroom, especially if you’re kayaking, as the oars make perfect supports (tree branches are fine too). Lay the tarp on flat ground, peg out one of the longer sides and raise the opposite side by points roughly a third of the way in. Lash to branches at head height or to oars, with the paddles angled inwards for support. Tuck in the two corners nearest these supports and peg down. Extra guy ropes are recommended in high winds.

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Simple gable roof

Most dedicated tarps have a series of central loops or eyelets. For a simple gable roof, run a line through the loops along the tarp’s length and attach the ends to sturdy supports at chest height.This forms a central line (about 75cm off the ground) to peg out your corners. This is great for creating a shelter above a hammock using the same supports (but remember to run the tarp line at head height).

Laurence McJannet is the author of Bikepacking: Mountain Bike Camping Adventures on the Wild Trails of Britain (2016), published by Wild Things Publishing.


Illustrations by Aidan Meighan

Adrift in the Atlantic

French biologist Alain Bombard was so convinced that castaways could survive purely on the sea’s natural provisions that he set out to prove it on a most extraordinary voyage

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In the spring of 1951, French biologist and physician Alain Bombard was asleep in the residents’ quarters of a hospital in Boulogne-sur-mer when he was woken by a call: the trawler Notre-Dame-de-Peyragues had missed her course in the mist and broken up on the outer breakwater of the harbour. Bombard arrived at a scene that would stay with him for the rest of his life: 43 men piled up on top of each other “like dislocated puppets”, their feet bare and lifejackets intact. The doctor and his colleagues failed to revive a single one of them.

Bombard thought about how one simple error of navigation had caused the deaths of 43 men and orphaned 78 children. He thought of the 150 fishermen killed each year just in his region of France, and the 200,000 who suffered the same fate every year around the world. More than a quarter of them made it to a lifeboat, only to die in prolonged agony from lack of food and water, or the well-documented perils of losing one’s mind at sea.

Bombard became convinced that castaways could survive for long periods of time by feasting on what the sea could provide, and that countless lives could be saved if lifeboats were fitted with a few simple pieces of equipment: fish hooks, fine nets for collecting plankton – a source of vitamin C – and presses for squeezing fresh water out of fish. He even argued that drinking small amounts of seawater – a maximum of one and a half pints per day – could prolong life, contradicting centuries of evidence to the contrary. But how could he prove such a thing?

To demonstrate his point, in 1952, Bombard embarked on a singular voyage. In the hope of saving thousands of future castaways, he determined to sail across the Atlantic Ocean in a 15-foot (4.5m) inflatable dinghy, using only the sea for sustenance. Onboard the aptly named l’Hérétique, he would have a sextant and a watch for navigating, his fishing kit, and a tarpaulin for shelter and catching rainwater. Emergency rations would be sealed within the craft, and checked by officials once he reached the other side of the Atlantic.

He set his sights on the West Indies, plotting a course between two dreaded dangers: the Doldrums and the Sargasso Sea. The former was an area of low pressure, where two powerful trade winds “meet in a tremendous conflict in a no-man’s land of violent storms, unpredictable turbulence and disquieting calms” (Alain Bombard, The Bombard Story, 1953). The latter was far more frightening.

On 19 October 1952 Bombard set off from the Canaries, cheered on by friends and accompanied by a “veritable convoy” of yachts. Even though the stiff breeze that sped him away from the harbour abandoned his lifeboat shortly after and left him drifting, he slept well that first night, tucking his tarpaulin up to his neck like a blanket and dropping off under a “lovely, luminous sky”.

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It didn’t take long for the reality of his solo voyage to sink in, however. After two more nights drifting aimlessly, a light breeze, which soon became a tempest, pushed l’Hérétique further into the Atlantic where it tossed the inflatable craft about like a cork. Confident in the lifeboat’s stability, Bombard decided to sleep it out, waking soon after to find himself completely surrounded by water. He began frantically bailing, scooping water out with his hat for the next two hours while more waves broke over the boat.

Being only a few days into his voyage, Bombard felt confident in his ability to weather the storms. But as October wore on, l’Hérétique continued to be buffeted by gales. The sail ripped; if he managed to sleep at all, Bombard did so shivering, encrusted with salt. When not bailing water or stitching up his sail, he mused on the nature of fear and despair. Above all, he was afraid of fear itself, recognising that increasing tiredness and exhaustion led him to expect the worst.

To keep his growing melancholia at bay, Bombard busied himself with catching fish, squeezing water out of the small ones using a makeshift press and cutting slits in the larger ones and drinking straight from their bodies like some Gollum of the Atlantic. He trapped seabirds and ate them raw and netted two daily spoonfuls of plankton to top up his vitamin C levels and keep scurvy at bay.

Sea-fearing

But fear kept creeping in and, come late October, Bombard had become fixated by the condition of his boat. Each day, he inspected the inflatable craft meticulously, noting where friction had worn the rubberised canvas thin, prising barnacles off to keep its undercarriage in tip-top condition, and putting his ear to the material to check for sounds of rubbing like a doctor with a stethoscope.

So imagine his horror when, in the middle of the Atlantic, he began to be hounded by swordfish. By now, Bombard had become a dab hand at batting away sharks, but he was defenceless against swordfish, fearing that he would enrage them if he engaged in conflict (swordfish were, he had read, prone to fits of fury). He described “12 hours of terror” fending off “a large swordfish of undeniably menacing aspect … seemingly in a rage, his dorsal fin raised like hackles”.

It’s worth noting that, by this point, Bombard was also completely lost. “[I] can no longer determine my longitude with certainty,” he admitted on 26 October. “I shall just have to guess it from the time the sun reaches the meridian”. Stubbornly, he pushed on, but his body was beginning to show the effects of his journey. He started to lose toenails and developed a rash. Losing weight, he found it impossible to get comfortable; every position he sat or lay in caused him pain.

By November, having failed to read an accurate longitude for weeks, Bombard was convinced that he was approaching the end of his journey, unaware that he hadn’t yet passed the Cape Verde Islands. Expecting to see land each new day, and being sorely disappointed, his mood dwindled. And as the days wore on, he started to become increasingly superstitious: he became obsessed with seabirds, which teased him to despair with their promise of land; Wednesdays took on a special meaning; and he believed that he could calculate wind speed by simply listening to its note against the sail.

The only tangible presence being his own, Bombard began to take comfort in the creatures around him, documenting his encounters with all the drama and character you would expect from someone who hadn’t had human contact for months. He was visited at four o’clock each day by the same petrel and was kept company for almost the entire journey by a shoal of ‘dolphins’ – actually dorados, a large type of fish, which jostled around his boat. “I began to share their sensations and reactions,” he wrote, “eating the same food and catching the same flying fish”.

Between the horror of swordfish attacks and the creeping onset of paranoia, Bombard also experienced moments of pure wonder – a half-eaten shearwater carcass illuminating the sail with a ghostly phosphorescence – and at times, he became overwhelmed by the beauty of his surroundings, writing long eloquent odes to the ocean. Staying awake one evening to check the time of the moonrise, Bombard was overcome by the feeling of what a strange and formidable element the sea is, writing:

It seems to form part of a system so entirely different from normal existence that it might belong to another planet. But there it is at my feet, alive yet inscrutable. Here and there lights appear in the depths... They look like stars half hidden in a cloudy night sky. The fish around me leap and swim to and fro, protagonists of an unseen and mysterious existence. Life at the surface is only the thin upper layer of another world.

Approaching desperation

Around mid-November, time began to weigh heavily on Alain Bombard. He suffered a 14-day bout of diarrhoea and would go days without sleep. To top it off, the skin on his feet had started to peel away in strips and he was down to his last couple of toenails. Towards the end of November, the wind disappeared entirely and our castaway drifted for over a week, his mood ebbing, his eyes aching from straining on the horizon. Unbeknown to him, he had reached the edge of the Sargasso Sea.

Stewing in his own thoughts under a terrible sun, Bombard soon fell “prey to every emotion”. His paranoia became overwhelming; he believed the clouds were deliberately avoiding the sun so as to deny him shade. He decided that he would not attempt to fight the next storm, trusting his fate to God. “What have I done to deserve all this?” he wrote, dictating his will and final wishes, and holding the authors of his castaways’ handbook accountable for his inevitable death.

But just as Bombard was falling into despair, a miracle happened – and it did, in fact, fall on a Wednesday. He ran into the Arakaka, a passenger cargo steamer out of Liverpool. At first he was reluctant to board, fearing it would invalidate his experiment, but when the captain shouted his location over the tannoy – and it was 600 miles (966km) further east than he thought – Bombard scrambled aboard shouting: “This is it. Fifty-three days, I give up”.

He accepted a shower and a light meal: a fried egg, spoonful of cabbage and a slither of liver. He knew he would be held accountable for his self-imposed rule breaking, but his need for human contact was too great and accepting this hospitality, arguably, saved his life. The encounter gave Bombard the morale boost he so sorely needed, and he set off with renewed vigour on 10 December, having been taught how to read longitude.

On Christmas Eve 1952, the French biologist staggered on to a Barbados beach, 65 days after setting out from the Canaries. He had lost 55 pounds (25kg), was severely anaemic, and found it hard to walk, but he was alive. And, crucially, he had proved his point, at least in his own mind.


This story featured in issue 8 of Ernest Journal, on sale now.

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For more extraordinary tales of remarkable journeys, pick up a copy of our latest book The Odysseum: Strange journeys that obliterated convention (Chambers, 2018)