Americans have gardened with sorrel for a long, long time. In 1672, a cheerful traveler named John Josselyn, a man possessed of great curiosity and a pleasing literary style, published a book titled New England’s Rarities Discovered, etc.. Another volume, recounting his sea travels, followed two years later. Among Josselyn’s many accomplishments was compiling a list of all the vegetables he’d found growing in Colonial America. And mixed in with fennel (“must be taken up and kept in a warm cellar all winter,” wrote Josselyn), clary (“never lasts but one summer, the roots rot with the frost”), and asparagus (“thrives exceedingly”) was garden sorrel.
Called Rumex acetosa (“rumex” being the Greek word for another plant described by Pliny that belonged to this genus, and “acetosa” meaning acid or sour), sorrel has a long history of culinary use.
The taste is tart but good. The lemony flavor results from the high oxalic acid content in the leaves — which is also why sorrel should never be cooked in an aluminum pan (a problem not faced by early American cooks or, for that matter, by the French of today, whose gourmet chefs wouldn’t dream of using such utensils, preferring stainless steel or enamel, which won’t react with the plant juices).
A hardy perennial herb, sorrel has been in cultivation for well over 5,000 years and grows wild through much of Europe and North America. The Egyptians used it in combination with other greens, and the Romans ate a salad of lettuce and sorrel in preparation for the heavy meal to come. By the time of Henry VIII, sorrel was used as a spinach and enjoyed by the entire court. The leaves were ground into a mash, mixed with vinegar and sugar, then sauced over cold meats.
The plant can’t be misidentified, because only edible sorrel has the large, distinctly arrow-shaped leaves about 6 inches long on a 6-inch stalk. Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) has thin, small leaves only a few inches long. The flowers bloom in summer and are small and greenish, followed by a fruit (or achene) that is easily identified by its three wings. The new leaves that emerge from the crown are used for the table.
Sorrel does best in a good moist soil, in full sun to partial shade. If your garden is too small, try growing it in containers.
And since sorrel contains so much oxalic acid and tannin, go easy: This is one of those plants best used sparingly.
In 1931, in her classic, multivolume work A Modern Herbal, Mrs. M. Grieve wrote that in England, “the leaves are now rarely eaten, unless by children and rustics, to allay thirsts, though in Ireland they are still largely consumed by the peasantry with fish and milk. Our country people used to beat the herb to a mash and take it mixed with cold meats.”
Luckily, things have improved for Ireland in the ensuing decades. The best recipe calls for washing the sorrel in several waters and picking it over carefully, as you would spinach. Cook it for 10 minutes in a little salted water. Drain it as dry as possible and chop it finely, then place it in a pan with a lump of butter. For a pound of sorrel, add a quarter pint of cream and then two beaten eggs. When the puree thickens, it’s ready.
Irma Rombauer, writing in The Joy of Cooking, advises that sorrel leaves may be pounded in a mortar with sugar and vinegar to make a delicious tart sauce, or made into a puree, seasoned with tarragon and mustard, for use as a bed for fish.
I have an old, handwritten recipe for a cold sorrel soup that’s perfect for a warm summer’s evening. Gather four handfuls of washed sorrel leaves. Cut them from either side of the stalks, then chop into small pieces. Simmer them in a pan of boiling water for 10 minutes. Add one clove of garlic, crushed with some salt, half a cucumber (peeled and sliced), the juice of one lemon, another dash of salt, and a generous amount of black pepper. Beat two eggs. Remove the pan from the stove and pour a bit of the broth into the beaten eggs, stirring as you go. Return the mixture to the stove and stir over a low heat until it thickens. Add two hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped. Chill the soup in the fridge. Serve cold with some chopped tarragon.
As to medicinal applications, herbals advise that both the seed and the root were used for their astringent properties, and syrups made with the juice of fumitory and sorrel had the reputation of curing the itch. It will supposedly help clear the body of kidney stones and is used as a remedy for jaundice. It’s also a good poultice for boils and tumors.
Before cholesterol loomed, I thought we could never get enough of sorrel. But now we watch the egg-and-cream intake, so one plant is enough to provide garnishes and flavoring.
Oh, for days of yore!