My earliest memory of sage takes me back to my grandparents’ house, where they grew a garden filled with a remarkable variety of vegetation.
My grandmother would perform daily inspections of her green patches and, every time she returned, her hands and pockets were filled with an assortment of leaves, fruits and brunches. She would then make what she called a “health infusion” including a little bit of everything that we drank ceremonially in the mornings.
Day after day, she would serve me a cup of goodness that was mild in flavour and most commonly frequented with notes of pepper, anise or lemon. One day, however, I was served an explosion. Loud and clear sage made its presence known with the most unusual bouquet of warm, woody and musky aromas complemented by mint, camphor and eucalyptus. I felt as if I was in the presence of something extraordinary and almost regal. Sage could not be ignored.
It does not come as a surprise that sage has been known to cooks and doctors for millennia. In Ancient Egypt, the latter used the herb to help embalm the honoured pharaohs, and, in Greece, sage was the herb of longevity for its ability to fight off infections. Its genus name, salvia, comes from the Latin word “to be saved” and, up until today, it is applied to alleviate symptoms of sore throats, high levels of cholesterol, memory loss and even menopause.
Gastronomically, there are many varieties of salvia across the world, all of which carry specific flavour accents. The most well known in Europe is the common sage, salvia officinalis, and it is truly omnipresent as it grows with vigour and abundance in any garden it inhabits.
The common sage is a beautiful, lush shrub with stems that are densely populated with oblong leaves of a silver greenish colour. At the slightest touch, the leaves ooze pine, peppery and earthy aromas, ready to imprint their slightly bitter and savoury profile on anything that comes in contact with them.
In the kitchen, sage can execute multiple roles. On the one hand, it can act as a conductor and bring harmony and balance out of a complex set of ingredients. It performs exceptionally well in rich and hearty combinations, such as roasted meats, creamy sauces, and buttery vegetables, and every time manages to produce a symphony.
At the same time, sage can also do a duet number by building up richness and complexity of its partner ingredient. Try making a delicious compound batter by mixing it just with the butter; or put it together with the pearl barley for a less typical risotto dish. Also combine it with Jerusalem artichoke, pumpkin or beans to serve as an accompaniment. And, of course, do not forget the Holy Grail of sage flavour affinities, and make sure to try it with pork. Any form will do, stuffing, porchetta or a classical roast are all included.
Depending on the level of herbaceous assertiveness of the dish, sage can be used either fresh or dried. To build mild flavours, fresh leaves are recommended as they are more delicate in their approach. Make sure to chop the fresh herb with the sharp knife to help it release its flavours and prevent it from bruising. The dried option is more suitable for bold culinary statements, such as stews or braised meats.
Last but not least, sage can also easily join a band. Go ahead and throw it into a spice combination together with the usual suspects such as rosemary, lemon, garlic and nutmeg. They are a match made in heaven and will make your dish sing.
Dr. Irina Mikhailava, a chef and a good food champion, happily residing in the Algarve and eating all over the world with an appetite for learning, sharing and writing. Instagram: incompanyoffood