Sorrel

Short version:

A perennial that self-seeds itself into a nuisance because (I think) it’s hard to consume in large quantities due to its tart taste. It’s a lovely interesting one to add to a salad instead of a vinegarette and it’s refreshing with any rich or fatty food. It is a good plant for the hungry gap. Avoid if you suffer from any kidney diseases.

I’m a bit ambivalent about sorrel. Doesn’t sound like a great start but hear me out. It’s wonderfully easy to grow and some varieties are a perennial evergreen so you can eat it all year round but it can be a bit of a shocker to the taste buds. My issue is that despite being able to easily grow immense amount of it, I am saddened to find that I cannot EAT immense amounts of it.

Despite being a perennial, it is apparently often grown as an annual as the taste deepens with age. I like to grow it as a perennial because it’s much lazier.

There are a few types of sorrel you can grow. This is where I show my lack of horticultural education. I have heard of broad leaf sorrel, sheep sorrel, wood sorrel, French sorrel and red veined sorrel. Sadly I have only grown the last two on that list, so I feel it would only be fair to comment on those.

How to grow

Both red veined and French are incredibly easy to grow from seed. The seeds are tiny, but the plants will grow to about 50cm tall and 50cm wide so do not be too temped to plant them too close together. You also don’t need many plants, especially as they self-seed very well. It appears to do very well in almost any soil. It seems to grow very well in the paving cracks, where they have self-seeded. I should weed, but I like having edibles that don’t take up any space in the vegetable patch (though pretty much all the garden IS the vegetable patch). It has a deep root system so survives well under most circumstances. This tap root does mean that it is hard to dig out when well established and doesn’t transplant well. They do well in light shade areas and in full sun.

The French sorrel seems to be evergreen and we have been eating it through the autumn and winter. The red veined sorrel, however, dies back in late autumn and then reappears in late winter. You may find that the plant dies if the soil gets frozen in a very harsh winter and kills the roots.

Pinch out the flowers to keep the plant providing for longer. The red veined will die back after seeds appear. The French loses productivity when it seeds.

If you do want to grow it as an annual you can leave the plant to self-seed before pulling out the old plant. If you want to save seeds you can collect the mature pods and let them dry thoroughly before storing.

How to harvest

For the French sorrel harvest all year round, taking the outer leaves first. It grows quickly as the weather warms up and is a welcome green in the spring and in the hungry gap. The leaves remain soft no matter how large they get. For the red veined sorrel harvest the baby leaves. The larger leaves get tough and bitter. Treat sorrel as a cut and come again salad.

How it tastes

It is tart. That means that it is sour – but that’s the fun of it. If it was fruit, I’d be complaining. As it’s a green that requires no work and grows like a weed, tart is interesting. The taste is due to oxalic acid. I have read lots of things about oxalic acid. This is a good website that talks about it – eatthatweed.

There are many good points and even better, the information is referenced so you can decide for yourself how accurate it is. The main points are that oxalic acid exists in many of the things we eat, it binds with some nutrients but if you blanch it (discarding the water), it removes a third of all the oxalic acid and most of the soluble oxalic acid so the insoluble stuff pass through the system. It can also be mixed with high calcium ingredients like yoghurt to bind it. There has been some links between oxalic acid and kidney stones, but you’d have to eat a hell of a lot of it.

It’s lovely shredded and added into a salad. It makes a great sorrel soup that is popular in countries in the rest of Europe. It is great in crispy duck pancakes (which seems to be my default use of many of the unusual raw greens).

The blanching that removes much of the oxalic acid will also soften the taste. If making soup, make sure you discard the water used for blanching if you want less of a kick.

A little is lovely in oily or creamy recipes, cutting through the richness. So, it works well in salads with rich dressings, cheese or cured ham or in creamy sauces and soups.

There is an easy way to shred sorrel:

I’ve read that sorrel gets sourer as the leaves get older. With the French sorrel I’ve found that there’s no difference in the taste of any of the leaves. With the red veined sorrel any leaves longer than 2 inches tend to be bitter and the leaves are tough. It’s a bit like chewing paper. The red veined stuff looks great though, so it can be something pretty to mix into your beds for a bit of colour used for just baby leaves.

I may not have sold it that well, but I don’t want you cursing me when you eat it after spending months growing it. It’s a bit like Marmite. Still, I like having it in the garden and sneaking it into dinners. Besides, it’s incredibly difficult to get hold of in the shops and I feel like some sort of gourmet foodie when I say I’ll just pop into the garden (in any month) and make some sorrel soup.