Food History, Retro Recipes, Vintage Recipes

Sorrel – The Comeback Kid

Last year, I planted a broad leaf sorrel clipping in my herb and vegetable garden. I will be honest, I had never eaten sorrel before neither did I know much about its culinary history. I had seen it as an ingredient in numerous historical recipes so I thought it would be a good addition to my heritage herb garden. This spring, that little sorrel plant grew like crazy! The two pics on the right (above) were taken in May and the plant grew even bigger (nearly twice as much again!) but because of the bad weather in June, I didn’t manage to photograph it at its peak.

Interestingly, our neighbours are from Hungary and in their food culture, sorrel is a really  important herb. It is used in many different sauces, soups and is often teamed with chicken and fish. I told my neighbours to help themselves to the leaves and we both shared the plant. I am just sorry that I don’t have a final pic of the plant in all its bushy glory. Our neighbour’s daughter ate the leaves like sweets after school for several days in a row. She absolutely loved them. How fantastic to see a child enjoying fresh produce rather than reaching for the Haribo.

Sorrel is becoming an increasingly popular ingredient, once again, with British restaurant chefs and foragers alike. Sorrel grows wild, in abundance, in public spaces but do be careful before you start picking it with gay abandon. Be safe and sure you know that are selecting the correct plants. If you are not confident foraging by yourself, join a local group. I did this a few year’s ago and went foraging in my park with a professional guide (for free!). It made me stop and think how careful you have to be as so many plants look similar but eating them can have very different outcomes if you don’t know what you are doing.

According to Larousse Gastronomique (1961 edition), sorrel is:

…a hardy perennial herb which dates back before 3000 BC and still grows wildly today in Asia, Europe and North America. It is also cultivated. In the thirteenth century it was listed as an English herb; it has long been used in the making of sauces and soups. The young under leaves of this plant, also called Sour Grass, are used as salad greens or as a vegetable. (p.897).

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Since I had never eaten sorrel before I decided to try the following recipe for an omelette containing the herb. The recipe featured in a new book from my collection, Meatless Menus For Lunch, Dinner, and  Supper by Alfred Arm (edited by A. P. Laurie). Published in Scotland at the end of World War One (1918), this is a super little, meat free, cookery book.

Sorrel Omelette (1918)

  1. Mix a little melt-down sorrel with 3 eggs;
  2. Beat the eggs well, so that yolk and white are well mixed together; add pepper, salt, and fine herbs;
  3. Make butter hot in frying-pan, pour in the mixture, and stir over the fire with a fork till the eggs are on the point of setting;
  4. Draw the eggs to the end of the pan opposite the handle, and fold the sides towards the middle;
  5. When the omelette is nicely formed, turn it over on to a hot dish, and serve;
  6. Note: To make a proper omelette one has to keep a special pan for nothing else but omelettes and fried eggs. If the pan is not quite clean, the eggs will stick to the bottom of it, and will be apt to spoil the omelette.

By the end of World War One, the British people were having to endure rationing, food was in very short supply. In fact at one point, the nation was only 6 weeks away from starvation. The introduction to Meatless Menus contains some interesting thoughts about Britain’s need to be self-sufficient in times of national crisis. Quite a few points that seem to resonate in this post-Brexit Britain climate:

The shortage of food due to the war has the nation to consider both home food production and the most economical use of food… In the matter of food production we are now convinced that in our small sea-girt  island the land must be utilised for the production of the largest quantity of food, apart from individual profit; in the use of food we must take lessons from our Continental neighbours, and learn to utilise the various foodstuffs which are obtainable outside of meat, and give up the extravagance of our ordinary habits of eating and cookery.

It must, however, be remembered that the production of the largest quantity of food means that we must become a grain-growing country, producing wheat, barley, and oats, and therefore that we shall have less land available for the feeding of animals.

This country is capable of producing large quantities of cereals, vegetables, and eggs, and the sea surrounding us supplies us, in normal times, with unlimited quantities of fish. If, therefore, we alter the diet of the past, we can become very largely self-supporting in the matter of food, with advantage both in economy and health, and it is to be hoped that these war lessons will result in a permanent alteration in the food habits of this country. (pp. 3-4)

Another lovely recipe I found is Elizabeth David’s (1913-1992) hake with sorrel, featured in French Country Cooking (1951). David observes that in early 1950’s Britain:

Sorrel is not often seen in England, although I have managed to buy it in London from time to time, and some enterprising people grow it in their garden. It has a delicious flavour, rather acid, and is a perfect foil for fish and eggs.

For Colin à l’oseille, poach a large piece of hake or rock salmon in a court-bouillon with an onion, herbs, and lemon peel. Clean the sorrel (about 1lb), and cook it as for spinach, with as little water as possible. Make this into a puree by putting it through a sieve, mix in 2 yolks of eggs, a little French tarragon mustard, a few leaves of raw sorrel which you have reserved, chopped finely with a few leaves of tarragon. Serve the fish on this green bed, either hot or cold, garnished with lemon. A fine summer dish. (p.65)

Sorrel is an incredibly versatile herb. Apart from soups, sauces, eggs and fish it can also be preserved or simply served as a side dish with a squeeze of fresh lemon and a knob of butter. It has a strong, slightly bitter taste but if you like spinach, the texture is exactly the same when cooked or braised. I truly believe that this abundant, wild and cultivated herb with its ancient culinary roots, rightly deserves its place at the British dining table once more.

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