Keeping your cool

It’s a bit strange to be talking about cooling herbs in March, but that’s English weather for you; and a sudden heatwave is harder to bear than a gradual buildup to summer. Most of our everyday culinary herbs are on the warming side, with the notable exception of mint, but there’s a whole class of herbs that we tend not to use for pleasure, and that’s the bitters.
A bitter taste cools you by bringing heat to your digestive system, so it both helps to process food, and takes heat from the surface of your body. You can test that for yourself; have some strong dandelion coffee (for example), and notice how you feel over the next half hour or so. It’s useful to people who suffer from hot flushes or acute eczema, among other things.
The more obvious way we use herbs to cool down is with ‘hot’ or spicy food. Hot herbs like chilli, mustard, pepper and ginger promote sweating, so your skin feels cooler. Strangely enough, hot herbs and bitter herbs are not incompatible; think of curries with tamarind or bitter gourd in them, or salads with watercress and garlic, for example. And a lot of herbs on the warming side, like thyme and rosemary, have a ‘secret’ bitterness in them. The two ways of acting work very well in concert. Just as well; we might be needing them a good deal this summer…

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