Today we’ve eaten the last of our sorrel until spring.
Where I grew up we had traveller families who passed through our village several times a year, and when they did, their children would join us in school for a few weeks. As they walked home, the traveller kids regularly foraged for food: hazelnuts in early autumn, mushrooms from early spring to late summer and sorrel from late spring. Many of us learned a little about free wild food from their visits, and while I’d never go mushrooming on my own, because I’m not confident enough about my identification of various fungi, I still forage for a wide range of foods: especially sloes, hazelnuts and elderberries.
Sorrel though, has become such a part of our diet that we have taken to growing it in pots. Common sorrel has the Latin name Rumex acetosa and is also known in the USA as spinach dock. It’s a perennial herb, so once you get it established it needs little care and in the garden it can be invasive, which is why we grow it in containers. This is not the same plant as Jamaican Sorrel which has the Latin name Roselle.
If you’re looking for sorrel in the wild, watch out for the spikes of red flowers that tower above the leaves in late spring and early summer – they are the most distinctive feature of the plant. By autumn these flowers have disappeared and it can be a little more difficult to identify the plant in the wild. Look for leaves that are similar in shape to dock leaves, but a lighter green and tear a little from the top of a leaf to taste – sorrel is very distinctive, it has a bitter citrusy flavour that you can’t mistake for anything else. It’s high in oxalic acid which makes it taste tangy but also means you shouldn’t it too much of it or you’ll get stomach ache. On the other hand, in Tudor England they ate sorrel twice a day from early spring until the rest of the salads appeared around May, so ‘too much’ is probably going to be a portion that most of us would consider excessive.
If you find it when the flower heads are up, the best way to grow it at home is to wait until late summer, and then tie a paper bag loosely around one of the flower spikes, bending it downwards without breaking it. In a few days, if the weather stays fair, the seeds will dry and drop into the bag. They can then be sown in a large pot at home – put them indoors until May and then leave them out until November when you should cut back the lower leaves and take them into a frost free place for the winter. Once the plants are established you can start putting them out as soon as your area is frost free.
If you prefer to forage from the wild, cut or tear no more than one third of the leaves from each plant. If the leaves are mature, you may have to remove some ribs before using them and always wash leaves well to remove any foreign matter that may be on them.
Cooking with Sorrel
In summer you can use sorrel in salads, but we usually make pesto.
- 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
- 2 garlic cloves
- 100 grams sorrel leaves (blanched for a minute in boiling water, then refreshed in cold water)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- (40 grams grated Parmesan is optional but nice for dinner parties)
- In a coffee grinder or pestle and mortar grind the toasted pine nuts and garlic together.
- Place this mixture in a food processor along with the remaining ingredients and mix until smooth
- Serve over warm pasta. Delicious …