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An aroma of mystery.

The recipe for Angostura aromatic bitters is so closely guarded that it is practically a synonym for "secret," says Suraj Bachan, a taxi driver in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago.


"When you don't want to tell somebody something, you say, 'Go ask Angostura what they put in the bitters, and when they tell you that, I'll tell you.' That finishes the argument, because everyone knows Angostura will not tell you," explains Bachan.

Best known as a concoction to jazz up cocktails, Angostura bitters is infused with an aura of mystery dating back to the days of Simon Bolivar. Today only five people in the world are said to know its exact ingredients, and the formula is kept in a bank vault. At the House of Angostura, located in the low-income community of Laventille, in eastern Port of Spain, the botanical components are stored, sorted, and weighed behind a locked red door. No photographs allowed, even of the door.

In the aromatic manufacturing area, botanical ingredients from the locked room come through a wooden chute into a grinder; the ground mixture is then transferred to percolators, where the botanicals are blended with alcohol so the flavors can begin to "marry." Sugar and other flavorings are added and then the solution is placed in giant vats for at least three months before bottling.

Highly concentrated blends of alcohol, herbs, and other flavorings, bitters became popular in the 1800s as medicinal tones and elixirs. Angostura is far from the only brand on the market today, but it is among the most well-known, with a distinctive bottle found in bars around the world.

Whatever its precise combination of ingredients--gentian root is one it admits to--Angostura bitters plays a supporting role in numerous cocktails, including such classics as the Manhattan, the Old-Fashioned, and the Pink Gin, the latter reportedly favored by England's late Queen Mother. (Angostura has long held a Royal Warrant to supply the British royals.) It also livens up some drinks considered nonalcoholic, such as "Lemon, Lime, and Bitters," a popular quaff among golfers in Australia.

The aromatic blend also draws praise from many chefs, who tend to use words like "wow" and "oomph" to describe its impact. Chef and caterer Bernard Long, a New Zealander who moved to Trinidad and Tobago fourteen years ago, uses bitters in shrimp, fish, pork rub, even lemon sorbet. He was recently experimenting with a chocolate and pepper sauce with bitters in advance of the June 2009 Taste of the Caribbean competition organized by the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association. The bitters, he says, enhances the richness of the chocolate and the spiciness of the Scotch bonnet peppers. "The undertones of all the herbs and spices that go into making the bitters come through in the sauce."

Long is captain of the national team for Taste of the Caribbean--Trinidad and Tobago ended up taking the highest team honors this year, adding to its victories in 2004, 2006, and 2007--and Angostura used to be the team's title sponsor. That helped spark his initial interest, but he continues to explore new possibilities for cooking both with traditional bitters and with an orange variety Angostura introduced in 2007. The aroma, he says, "stimulates your taste buds to a different level."

It doesn't work in everything, though; after all, the taste can come across as quite bitter. "It can make or break a dish," Long says. "A lot of it is experimental."

Chef Dehra Sardinha-Metivier, who has collaborated with Angostura to develop recipes, remembers that when she was growing up, her grandmother would add dashes of bitters to traditional dishes like stew chicken. The aromatic blend is complex and versatile enough, she says, to work across the flail range of her country's varied cuisine, which encompasses Indian, African, Asian, Spanish, Syrian, Lebanese, and other influences.

"It has a really nice background note and adds a nice balance to whatever marinade you're making," she says. Sardinha-Metivier, who works as an independent caterer and consultant, especially likes to use the new orange bitters in marinades for pork or lamb; the taste, she says, evokes fresh orange find and vanilla, along with sweet and spicy notes.

As someone who was born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, Sardinha-Metivier likes to showcase the local and traditional even when she is experimenting with something new. "You tend to gravitate, as any chef would, to things that are in your own backyard," she says. "You want to be able to give homage to things that are around you."

Angostura is something of an institution in Trinidad and Tobago--though it actually got its start in neighboring Venezuela, where a Prussian army doctor and adventurer named Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert joined Simon Bolivar in the War of Independence against Spain. Bolivar appointed Siegert surgeon general of the military hospital in Angostura ("narrow place"), a port town on the Orinoco River that served for a time as the revolution's headquarters and was renamed Ciudad Bolivar years later.

In Angostura, Siegert began experimenting with tropical herbs and other plants in the area, seeking a cure for the stomach ailments that were talking a toll on Bolivar's army. In 1824, he came up with a blend he called amargo aromatico, and by 1830 Siegert was producing the bitters commercially and exporting the product to Trinidad and England.

He died in 1870, and five years later his sons Carlos and Alfredo packed up the company and moved to Trinidad, later to be joined by their brother Luis. Today, several streets in Port of Spain's Woodbrook district--once a sugar plantation--are named after members of the Siegert family.

A museum in the House of Angostura chronicles the family saga and the development of the company, which entered the ruin market more than a century ago. Rum accounts for the vast majority of sales today, bitters for much of the brand's mystique.

Angostura Ltd. is now part of the massive CL Financial conglomerate, which has been enmeshed in a financial crisis for several months. IBut whatever happens next, Angostura spokeswoman Giselle Laronde-West is confident the classic brand will endure for a very long time.

The ingredients in Angostura aromatic bitters haven't changed since 1824. The white label, crammed with text in four languages, describes "a skillfully blended aromatic preparation of gentian in combination with a variety of vegetable colouring matter;" it also states that it has an alcohol content of 44.7 percent and does not contain angostura bark. Beyond that, who knows?

The label comes with its own lore. Faraously oversized--apparently the result of an early ordering mix-up--it is considered too distinctive to change, so generations of bartenders and cooks have crinkled the top of the paper around the neck of the bottle.

Although many people in Trinidad and Tobago swear by a few drops of Angostura bitters as a digestive aid, the company makes no medicinal claims. Of course, some might consider it to have a medicinal role of a different sort.

"In Trinidad," says Bernard Long, "a rum punch is not really a rum punch unless it has Angostura bitters in it."

Freelance writer and editor Janelle Conaway is a frequent contributor to Americas.
Baking with Bitters

Recipes created by Debra Sardinha-Metivier, an
award-winning chef and former captain of Trinidad
and Tobago's Taste of the Caribbean team, who
now owns her own catering and consulting firm.

Bitters Braised Pork

4 tablespoons olive oil
2 1 1/2 poundspork for stew, cut into 2 -inch cubes
2 medium onion, cubed
8 doves garlic, minced
1/4 cup red wine
2 flavoring peppers, minced
4 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
5 teaspoons Angostura aromatic bitters
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3 fresh tomatoes, cubed
1 cup chicken stock
1 sweet pepper, diced
3 cloves garlic
1/4 inch orange peel

Optional: Pinch of red pepper chili flakes
Salt to taste

Place oil in a heavy flameproof casserole pot and
heat on high. Add the pork and sear. Remove pork
from the pot. Add onion and garlic and saute until
transparent. Next add wine and mix well. Add
remaining ingredients and pork. Place in 350[degrees]F
oven for 40-45 minutes or until pork is tender.

Please note that you may need to reduce the liquid
if you prefer a more concentrated flavor. To do this
remove the pork from the pot and place the pot on
the stove on a medium-high heat to reduce slightly.

Bread Pudding with Citron and Cherries

3 eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup melted butter
2 cups milk
2 teaspoons Angostura aromatic bitters
2 teaspoons vanilla essence
16 slices egg bread, cubed
1/2 cup each, chopped cherries and raisins
1/4 cup chopped citron

In a deep bowl whip eggs. Add sugar, melted butter,
milk, Angostura aromatic bitters, and vanilla
essence. Blend thoroughly and pour over bread.
Add remaining ingredients. Turn gently to coat
bread evenly. Transfer to a buttered 3-quart baking
dish. Let stand for 30 minutes. Set in a pan of hot
water and bake in 350[degrees]F oven for 60 minutes, or
until the top is golden.
COPYRIGHT 2009 Organization of American States
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Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Conaway, Janelle
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:5TRIN
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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