By April there is more choice of herbs in the garden but Sorrel is the first around which I can deliver the “dinner of herbs” promised at the outset of this series.
The Latin name for the sorrel family is Rumex meaning “I suck”, as Roman soldiers apparently used to suck the leaves to relieve thirst, as did, at least in some works of literature, field workers. The name sorrel comes from the French “surelle” meaning “sour”, which accurately describes the taste, the flavour being somewhat lemony. In fact sorrel is so acidic that its juice can be used instead of rennet to curdle milk.
There are three varieties of the Rumex family. Rumex Acetosa is the most commonly cultivated of the three and also found growing wild, it is known as Broad Leafed Sorrel, Common Sorrel or Garden Sorrel. Rumex Scutatus is more popular in France hence one of its names is French Sorrel, however, confusingly this name is also sometimes given to Rumex Acetosa. The more common name for it in England is Buckler Leaf Sorrel. It has much smaller leaves and a milder flavour making it more suitable for eating raw – a lovely addition to salads. Rumex Acetosella grows wild on heaths and fields, its common name is Sheep’s sorrel.
Wood Sorrel, which has pretty white flowers and heart shaped leaves, is actually a member of the Oxalis family, its Latin name being Oxalis Acetosella.
All the sorrels contain high levels of oxalic acid, which in large doses is poisonous, causing severe kidney damage. It should not be eaten by those who suffer from rheumatism, arthritis, gout, kidney stones or gastric hyperacidity. The positive effects of small quantities of sorrel are the cleansing and improving effects on blood. It works in a similar way to spinach by improving the haemoglobin content of the blood.
Sorrel quickly turns from a fresh green to a sludgy khaki colour when cooked so it is best added at the end and heated only briefly. For example in the classic French sorrel omelette sliced strips of sorrel leaves should be added just before the eggs set. Other classic uses include sorrel sauce to serve with oily fish, and sorrel soup. The lemony flavour also works well with tomatoes and most cooked fungi dishes, in fact sorrel was used as a substitute for lemon in many dishes including sweet ones such as apple fritters.
But the dish that turns sorrel into a main course comes from chef, Gennaro Contaldo, who included a risotto with sorrel on his very first menu when he opened Passione and found it so popular that it was very hard to leave it off! The restaurant, sadly, is now closed but do make it at home and I’m sure it will soon become a favourite. It’s certainly a handy standby to know. My British version uses pearl barley rather than rice.