On sorrel

Oseille, you bitter thing:  pucker up!  Here it grows with perennial leeks and some salad things.

I recently received a request to use a photo of buckwheat that I had posted here, and, re-reading the buckwheat post, I thought how strange the world does turn.  You see, I had been thinking about sorrel, and sorrel, rhubarb, and buckwheat are all of the same family (Polygonaceae).  This concurrence seems to happen with surprising frequency for me around the December solstice.  I wonder if I am simply paying more attention to things now that the garden is winding down?  And:  anyone out there know the name of the term for this happy coincidence?  [Bingbing!  Astute commenters Sharon and Diana listed synchronicity and the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, respectively.  It was the latter that I was grasping for.  Thanks, I seem to have dropped my Jung somewhere along the way to the garden….]

While I am at it, does anyone know the term for the way leaves can be easily stripped one way but not another off of a plant’s stem, like most herbs (thyme, rosemary)?  Anyone?  It would be surprisingly useful cocktail hour conversation with a particular set of people.

Okay, back to sorrel.  If you have not heard of (much less eaten) this perennial before, don’t be too alarmed.  It is grown for its arrow-shaped, spinach-like leaves, and, much like most spinach, does not travel well.  (And before you disabuse me of the idea that spinach travels well because you have two week old bags of the stuff in your fridge, I will remind you that you should not own such a bag of fakery.  Home-grown spinach does not travel.)  In point of fact, sorrel practically screams when you pick it, and will soon be a floppy mess unless used quickly.  This point alone recommends it:  it means it’s darned close to what it originally was, unlike, say, your plastic bag of plastic spinach.

So:  this is a spinach substitute?  Um, not exactly.  I would say it is its own thing, and, if it is used as anything in my house, it’s used as a lemon substitute.  A good handful of the leaves, de-stemmed, melt down in a buttered pan in less than a minute and form an unctuous sauce appropriate for fish or eggs.   We eat a lot of fish and eggs here so this sauce gets a bit of a workout.  Its lemony-ness is due to the oxalic acid in its leaves:  the bigger the leaves, the sharper the taste.  One hears the small leaves are reminiscent of kiwi fruit.  I don’t disagree, but that’s a stretch.  The leaves are astringent, surely.

Frequently, though, I harvest the leaves (big and small) for our nightly salad.  I have had patches of sorrel growing around my gardens for years:  it actually liked my Minnesota winters, and I even uprooted it and dragged it here when we moved to Michigan.  It loves the greenhouse too, and does not winter-kill.  Reliably, it goes to seed each spring, sending up a bunch of stalks that stand six, seven feet in height.  The stalks get cut when the seeds turn brown, then it resumes its tireless production of leaves.  And:  despite the innumerable quantity of seeds, I have not had a problem with wild self-sowing of the stuff.

My chickens love sorrel.  Considering that two nonadjacent generations of the birds have figured this out, I think this is a universal and not a learned chicken trait.

Do you see the sorrel in this bed?  Me either.  Damned birds.  The snow I suppose can be partially to blame, but still…!

Ahem.  If you are not one who appreciates the bitter or the sour, you can give sorrel a pass.  Although it’s grown throughout the Mediterranean, it’s particularly popular in soups in Eastern Europe and western Russia.  This is fitting, considering these people’s preference for sour pickles, krauts, yogurts and the like.  I have made sorrel soup:  it’s especially yummy if it’s a cream soup (onion/leek, melted sorrel, then heavy cream dumped in just before serving).  The cream tames some if its zest.  I love it with mashed potatoes and chopped scallions, though, too.

Oh look:  it grows by runners too:  or at least this little bit has rooted from a stem.

Frankly, the only way I have grown it is to receive plants from others.  A quick check to the nearest seed catalog at hand (Pinetree, quickest to the mailbox this year) shows that, indeed, purveyors do sell bunches of seeds (though you might have to look hard:  in this catalog, it’s listed as a French vegetable), so this plant is eminently grow-able.  Personally, I will never garden without it.  Its attributes are many (you can ignore it, it grows heartily, it accepts a wide range of conditions, and, most importantly, is singular in its taste) and its problems are few.  Once you have it, you can impress others with your knowledge of it.  And, unlike many plants that I have grown for their “why isn’t it grown more” cachet (I’m looking at YOU, Good King Henry), this plant actually is worthwhile.

20 responses to “On sorrel

  1. Love my sorrel. Lost it for awhile, but it’s back, two kinds of it, and I think I got mine from Pinetree Seeds, too. It’s 14° today and I’ll bet I could find some to pick. The best is the long bladed stuff (then there’s the sheep sorrel that grows wild and looks like a three-four leaf clover.

    By the way, El, the word you are thinking of is synchronicity, I think, but I don’t know about the quill-like herb leaves…

    • You’re right, Sharon, it’s synchronicity…but there’s another term out there too that I am thinking about. Some very German mash-up of terms, or maybe more social-scientific or something! And sheep’s sorrel! bane of my existence in one bed of the gardens, grows by runners grumble grumble.

      • Since I know you’re from MN, maybe you’re thinking of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon? It doesn’t totally fit this situation, but it’s similar…

        I have lots of wild sorrel here. The only thing that makes me think that what I have differs from domestic sorrel is that the leaves on mine get rather large as the season progresses. Maybe domestic sorrel does that, too, and I just haven’t seen it because it’s kept harvested and/or all I see are Glamor Shots? I hesitate to buy sorrel seed for much the same reason I’ve not bought purslane seed: I wonder if there’s enough of a difference to warrant the effort to “cultivate” it, when I have loads of, er, *volunteers.*

  2. My chickens like sorrel, too, but they really like buckwheat. When I was a kid, we used to eat the sheep sorrel and we called it “sweeties”, which is a pretty dumb thing to call something so sour.

  3. love sorrel. it (they?) even grows well, and overwinter here in the Canadian Foothills – very hardy. Spring tonic soups with sorrel, dandelions, chives, garlic, asparagus; sauce for fish, stuffing for pork…and this:



  4. LOVE the sorrel…sorrel potato soup and sorrel pesto are two faves around here…..

  5. I grew French sorrel for the first time last summer, and it did amazingly well over the summer. A few plants go a looooong way, though. A friend came to dinner and brought her chef boyfriend; I made a starter of sorrel soup using Julia Child’s recipe, and it went over really well. Actually, it was really delicious.

    Thanks to Jake for the teaandcookies link. I followed it and read the whole post, and saw that the tart recipe originated with Richard Olney, whose cook book I have.

    My husband was wandering around the kitchen, and since I’m comfortably seated with laptop in lap, I asked him to get me the Simple French Food by Richard Olney from the bookcase in the kitchen. A couple of minutes later I hear him say, “French Food for Simpletons”….

    • Actually, Paula, that’s one of the few cookbooks that actually lives in my tiny kitchen. It’s terribly literate and he’s terribly opinionated, so of course he’s granted the short shelf space!!! hope you get it, simple(ton) or not (gosh I can see him getting you French Food for Dummies, is there such a thing?)

  6. 1) So, is this related to/different than wood sorrel of the clover-looking variety?

    2) Very seriously, would you consider doing a foraging class for Michiganders in the warmer months? I’m finding that we’re a bit short on foraging education round these parts.

  7. Totally with you El. What’s not to love about something that comes us so early in late winter, is perennial and lends itself to a number of preparation. Sorrel has opened the eyes (or should I say the taste buds) of many of my cooking class students when we tour the garden to pick things to cook…

  8. Sorrel with mashed potatoes and chopped scallians…now that sounds intriguing.

    So, I have to agree with you about The Good King, as much as I would like to love it considering how well it grows for us…it just aint happening, and I like almost anything. Food for the chickens, they seem to enjoy it.

  9. You have inspired me to do something with the two small patches of sorrel lovingly planted by the woman who owned our house before us – thank you!

    I’m hoping you might take pity on this poor neophyte gardener and explain the perennial leeks you show in the first photo – how do they work? Do you just cut the tops off and the root grows again? This is probably a ridiculous question, but I have heard mention of perennial onions, and don’t understand how they work. Thank you!

    • Miriam, there is no such thing as a ridiculous question, esp. relating to obscure garden edibles. Perennial leeks and perennial onions (scallions) grow in clumps. These little guys in the photo were planted singly last fall so they’ve not yet had a chance to clump up. I harvest the perennial onions (green or spring onions) by cutting them above their roots and with perennial leeks I try to tease an outer, smaller leek out from the root ball, and taking the roots with it. I have successfully grown the scallions from seed but the perennial leeks I purchased from Southern Exposure as bulbettes a couple of years back and I’ve been moving them around ever since!

  10. Well, the chickens love sourgrass (oxalis) here, so the sour taste must be to their liking.

    It’s not to mine, though. So no sorrel here.

    The leaf-stripping thing. . . do tell if you find out.

  11. I like sorrel a lot. I got some plants from a Benedictine monk last summer (the one who makes the vinegar) but they cacked in the brutal heat. My former bed didn’t survive being moved (though I planted it from seed with no problem). The Pinetree catalog arrived here too, and it’s already on my list. It’s hard not to order right away.

  12. Hmmm… I’ve tried sorrel, but mine is the red-veined sorrel which was bitter AND sour. It does not propogate by runners. So it must largely depend on what variety you’re growing to know if it is any good? Was your original seed from Pinetree?

    • Amy, I have grown the red-vein sorrel too: it’s so pretty! But for me it Virginia, it was not as vigorous as French sorrel, and the leaves got tough pretty fast – they had to be harvested very small. Anyway it could not fend for itself and has disappeared from the garden. French sorrel however is happy… and so am I!

  13. I grow sorrel in So Cal each year in my garden.It does well but I notice as the season goes on it gets more bitter.I love it in scrambled eggs or an omelet.

  14. Thanks for the Pinetree seed recommendation, Sharon. Good to know that it can be grown that way! And yeah. I think what you’re calling sheep’s sorrel is actually wood sorrel, part of the oxalis family. Grows from bulbs, is found in some form nearly everywhere, little yellow flowers mostly. The sheep’s sorrel growing in part of my garden is rather an obnoxious weed, grows by runners that are nearly impossible to pull completely out. At least out of my clay muck, anyway.

    Diana, yeah, you win the prize! But I do know what you mean about plentiful in weed form, why grow it? I have cultivated purslane, and yeah, for the effort that went into it, the wild was certainly more…prolific. Needed more washing, a bit more discarding-of-stems, but yeah. If you have enough of the wild stuff, then save your garden space for something else.

    Thanks for the sorrel pie link, Jake. That really did look yummy! And yes, yearning for all those fresh spring greens, it’s so great when they spring forth and you can really indulge. Tonic, indeed. I think these seasonal gluts are kind of wholistically necessary. Of course I don’t think this during tomato season, but still.

    Milkweed, and just think of the soothing influence of chevre with the sorrel…!

    Paula, I do hope you get some of his books. And yeah with all food things, one item tends to influence another; Olney wasn’t making this stuff up, just putting it down. Blog-dom is a good thing in that regard, kind of democratic in a way. Trouble is, there are SO MANY TRULY AWFUL FOOD BLOGS there I said it! let them yell but that’s what I truly think.

    Hiya Mari. Point one, different family of plants entirely, though the tartness is very similar. Point two, excellent suggestion! I have a girlfriend who is a Wise Weed Woman (indeed, there are such things) and I want to post her classes on my blog; she does cheesemaking and breadmaking as well as weed i.d. for food and medicine. I think this is information that should be well shared. She lives northwest of Kalamazoo about equidistant from me as from you…keep checking back. I tend to make a lot of housekeeping changes on the blog in December so I will post a link to her classes soon-ish.

    Sylvie, don’t you find that the one missing thing in most people’s cooking tends to be a hint of the sour? Just a dash of vinegar before serving tends to really make food sing, and it’s like this great food mystery. Same with sorrel. Same with a bit of melted butter at the end. Anyway, I am glad you’re at least teaching people about its value!

    Mike ! I got you to cry “uncle”! Funny, isn’t it, especially since when it really comes on there are so many other more tempting things. Well, at least the chickens at your house and the bunnies at mine are well fed.

    Miriam, hope you find the sorrel pleasing. And like Paula says, a little goes a long way…except of course with me and my salads, as I like the stuff.

    Stefaneener, yeah, nobody has come forward as to the leaf-stripping thing. I might have to go ask a botanist. Chickens are mighty funny with what they like and dislike. Mine aren’t greens-happy until, well, something that I think is valuable is growing, then they find it somehow and yeah, it’s history.

    Peter, “to cack” is a great verb; very descriptive. I think you just had a crap garden year is all; things bode well for you next year. Because I say so, if you’re wondering. But indeed, with all this time on my hands, I already have my seed list completed. What’s the rush I wonder but then again it’s simply nice to have something garden-related accomplished.

    Amy, I think it’s really due to your preferences, frankly; you either like the stuff or you don’t. Red-veined does sound pretty if nothing else. But no, all three of my plants were either garden raids from friends or a gift. Maybe some critter of yours would like it?

    Hi John. Glad to hear it does well in paradise. And scrambled in eggs, yum! I so agree. Eggs just ask for such treatment. With scallions. Uh, just found tomorrow’s breakfast, thanks!

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