The 21st century has seen many old European salad crops — such as arugula, mache and radicchio — become popular in America, boldly going where only iceberg lettuce had gone before.
Sorrel, oddly enough, has yet to arrive. In France, it’s as popular as spinach, and in the days when Paris was ringed with market gardens, large areas were dedicated to sorrel, and cold frames met the demand for a year-round supply.
Sorrel’s lemony-tart flavor figures prominently in classic French recipes such as the creamy, egg-yolk-enriched soup called potage Germiny.
When simmered in liquid, sorrel loses its bright green color but melts and softens in a way that provides a nice thickening for a sauce. It makes a beautiful complement to strongly flavored fish, and the oxalic acid it contains is even said to soften and partly dissolved the tiny bones of shad when used as a stuffing.
It was traditionally used to curdle milk when making certain types of cheese. Rich in vitamin C, it also was an important weapon against scurvy in times when no other winter sources of C could be found.
Sorrel and I go way back, partly because I can’t resist a plant that takes care of itself. It’s one of the few truly perennial vegetables, overwintering even in very cold climates. The long, light-green, lance-shaped leaves emerge very early in spring, months before seed-grown outdoor crops will come anywhere near the table.
Unless you let weeds overrun it, sorrel is foolproof, requiring only a reasonably fertile, slightly acid soil. It prefers full sun but will do well in part shade, especially in summer.
Since sorrel spreads by runners and soon fills up a bed, a friend who grows it might give you a few clumps to get you started. Otherwise, direct-sow it in mid-spring, thinning plants to a foot apart.
Harvest it by cutting the large outer leaves to encourage the small inner leaves to grow and remove flowers stalks if they appear, to keep the plant from going to seed in summer. This also helps to keep production going. If you’ve neglected this step, just cut the whole plant back and it will start to regrow when cool weather returns. Renew your patch every four years or so in early spring, dividing the clumps and replanting them a foot apart. Pass along any extras.
Ordering sorrel seeds or plants can be a bit confusing. The varieties most commonly sold, such as “Blonde de Lyon” and “Belleville” are old-fashioned cultivars of common sorrel, Rumex acetosa. You also will encounter what is called “true French sorrel,” Rumex scutatus, which is more compact, and has little, round shield-shaped leaves less than 2 inches long. Usually the one sold is a variegated type called “Silver Shield.” Since “Belleville” and “Blonde de Lyon” were the traditional French market varieties it is hard to understand where the “true French” comes from.
Equally confusing are the descriptions of their flavors. Half the time, common sorrel is described as strong-flavored and the French as mild. The rest of the time the judgment is reversed. I can only offer the observation that my French sorrel (R. scutatus) is milder in cold weather than it is in summer. I like to keep a patch of it for use in salads and as a garnish. Look for the Latin name, or a photo that shows the characteristic leaf shape.
I also like a variety of common sorrel called “Profusion,” patented by Richter’s and available from its herb catalog. “Profusion” is vigorous, with large leaves, and does not bolt. Sometimes I use it raw, stacking the leaves and slicing them into thin ribbons for salads. But I also love to add it, chopped, to the pan drippings after I’ve roasted a chicken. With the addition of cream, it thickens into a rich, lemony sauce. And since I like to try to cook with home-grown produce as much as I can, I’m delighted to have a nutritious lemon substitute so close at hand.
Do not confuse either with sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella), a common weed in acid soil. It forms tiny rosettes which, though quite tasty, spread wildly on yellow, threadlike roots. Mulching does not deter it, in fact it loves mulch. The noted food forager Euell Gibbons stalked it happily in the wild for his salads, as may you, but do not plant it. It may be in your garden anyway, having crossed the Big Pond several hundred years ago, without fanfare or tribute. Now if we could just get it to return.