If there was ever a herb almost pathologically obsessed with pretending not to be even a little bit interesting, it’s sorrel.
It’s plug ugly, for one thing, especially the common version (Rumex acetosa). Even the French sorrel (R. scutatus) is a plain thing, the sort of plant you’d mistake for its close relative, dock, and hoe out as soon as it poked its nose above ground.
But don’t be fooled for a second. Pick one little leaf from the centre of the plant, and you’ll see why sorrel was used as a substitute for oranges and lemons long before there were such things in supermarkets (or anywhere else outside the Mediterranean, for that matter).
The most lemony thing short of sinking your teeth into the slice in your G&T, young sorrel leaves are refreshing and tart enough to send your saliva glands into overdrive. You can hardly believe such a concentrated, full-on flavour comes from such an unprepossessing, ordinary-looking plant.
I grow two: French sorrel, dull as ditchwater to look at but with the very, very best flavour. And then there’s red-veined sorrel which is far prettier but with a mere echo of lemoniness by comparison: proof, if proof were needed, that looks aren’t everything. I wish I could grow the baby of the family, buckler leaf sorrel, but the slugs have scoffed every last pot of seedlings I’ve sown.
It pretends to be a weed by growing absolutely anywhere: sun, shade, dry, wet and all stops in between. It’s one of the few proper herbs that will grow happily in the shade of the north-facing wall at the back of my herb garden: I like to startle visitors by plucking a leaf from what looks just like a clump of docks and getting them to eat it.
Sorrel is achingly trendy right now: cooks such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall love to name-drop it, and if you serve your guests sorrel soup you’ll be the most uber-fashionable of hosts. But we’re just rediscovering something Medieval monks knew all along: that behind that dour, no-fripperies exterior is a flavour to die for.
Even the name dates back to Norman times – it’s from the olde French for ‘sour’ - and sorrel was the ultimate in foraging finds, prized by monks who knew better than to overlook it as it hid among the Queen Anne’s lace and herb robert. It wasn’t just for flavouring, either: sorrel is incredibly high in vitamin C and was chewed to cure scurvy. Medicinally, it’s cooling – you can steep it in boiled water as a tisane to soothe fevers, though don’t go overboard, as it’s high in oxalates, poisonous in large quantities.
If you happen to suffer boils – fortunately more of a 14th century problem than a 21st-century one – cook the leaves to a pulp and stir in ground linseed to make a paste, then spread on a clean cloth and apply to the boil as a poultice. Actually, I have no idea if this works. If you’re up for an experiment, do let me know.
Later, it became a popular dye, turning clothes a yellow green: tin mordant creates a pale lime, and chrome makes more of a tawny, liony colour.
But to be honest, I’m only intermittently in to DIY medicine and dyeing clothes random shades of yellow, so I just add the young leaves (very sparingly – a little goes a long way) to salads for a really unusual flavour among the lettuces.
One day I shall get adventurous and start cooking it: it behaves rather like spinach in the kitchen. There are dozens of recipes though be warned, sorrel is rather grumpy about being cooked (something to do with its cover being blown, I expect) and turns that unhealthy greyish shade of green reminiscent of calabrese left in the veg rack a week too long.
If there’s one thing you can rely on with this herb, though, it’s not to be taken in by appearances. It may look like rotten broccoli, but it tastes divine.