Although Sage is predominantly a Mediterranean herb and available fresh all year round, I associate it most strongly with the autumn months and the warming hearty dishes that we serve as the weather turns colder. I stress that it is available fresh all year round as I cannot understand why anyone would dry this herb, which quickly smells and tastes musty and quite unpleasant, and yet it is in the dried form that it turns up most frequently in British cooking. If there is one thing that I hope this article will achieve it is to persuade you to throw away any jars of the dried herb that you might be harbouring and plan instead where you will plant a bush in the spring.
You can grow sage from seed, although as one plant is likely to suffice in most homes I see little point in doing so. You can buy a plant quite easily in most garden centres and, once the threat of frost is over, plant it out where the soil drains well and it will receive a reasonable amount of sun. The bush will grow to about 2 foot in height, with a similar spread. After the first year you should trim the bush in the summer, when it has finished flowering, but don’t leave it until the autumn as late pruning can kill the bush. After about 5 years the bush will have become tough and woody, so in the 4th year take cuttings in spring from which to grow a replacement plant and prune the bush back hard. Although there are many varieties, including some with attractive variegated leaves, from a culinary viewpoint the ones to grow are just Common (or Garden) Sage or the broad-leaved variant Salvia officinalis Broad-leaved (latifolia). Confusingly the Common Sage is sometimes also referred to as Broad-leaved, but the leaves of the true broad-leaved are larger, darker, more oval and more aromatic than Common Sage. Additionally the Broad-leaved Sage rarely flowers in this country.
Medicinal and other properties
Sage has powerful healing properties but should be used with caution as, if you drink an infusion for more than a week or two at a time, it can cause potentially toxic effects. Nevertheless, as a short-term remedy Sage Tea is first rate for colds and when combined with a little cider vinegar makes an excellent gargle for sore throats.
In cooking it aids the digestion of fatty foods, hence its traditional pairing with pork and goose, and its antiseptic qualities help kill off any bugs in the meat, which is why it is so frequently used in sausages.
An essential oil is extracted from a variety of Sage known as Clary Sage – the oil being referred to as Sage Clary or Muscatel Oil. This is used in herbal medicines and toilet waters, perfumes and soaps but also to add flavour to wine, vermouth and certain liqueurs.
As a companion plant it is said to repel cabbage white flies.*
Cooking with Sage
Having already stated how important it is to use sage fresh the quantities needed this way are quite small. If you really want to preserve some, include it in a crab-apple jelly as an accompaniment to pork. It is great in stuffing, not only for meat but also for vegetables. In Italy sage often accompanies veal or liver. Frying individual leaves until they are crisp and then scattering them over a dish brings out the flavour beautifully and is a technique I employ to accompany liver, squash and some pasta or gnocchi dishes.
*source: JSM 2012