It’s been a quiet couple of months on the foraging front – although not completely bereft of opportunities, the depths of winter don’t lend themselves too well to the hobby. But as the first signs of spring start creeping into the corners of the gardens, with the snowdrops, then the crocuses, and finally the daffodils all springing in to life, the same is happening in nature’s wilder garden beyond. And to my mind the most welcome arrival at this time of year, heralding the start of the foraging season in earnest, is sorrel.
There are a number of varieties. The most common – common sorrel or rumex acetosa – is a staple in many gardens whether their owners know it or not, as it’s often found clustered amongst the hedgerows – its masses of tall arrow-shaped leaves are borne on a plant which grows up to 3ft or so in height, with stems which bear small red and greed flowers in late spring / early summer.
Wood sorrel (although not technically a sorrel, just to complicate things), on the other hand, is considerably smaller, and its three heart-shaped leaves on each stem mean that it’s frequently confused with clover – clover’s leaves, however, are more definitely oval, rather than heart-shaped, making that the easiest way of distinguishing the two.
All sorrels have a crisp, lemony taste, and wood sorrel and the young leaves of common sorrel both make great additions to salads, to flavour cold drinks – or on their own to create a lemon-free lemonade – as garnishes, or to bring a little zest to soups and stews.
Their lemon flavour means that they also partner very well with fish – create a metal foil parcel with a salmon fillet, a good pinch of salt and pepper, a chunk of butter, a handful of sorrel and a glug of white wine then seal and roast it. Alternatively mince 50g of wood sorrel in a blender along with 100g of butter and 10g of mustard, for a great spread for bread or toast.
If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, you could always try and make Schav – a sorrel based soup that’s well known in a variety of guises in Eastern European countries, built on a base of broth, sorrel leaves and salt to which any number of vegetables are added to build depth.
As they contain oxalic acid (reflected in wood sorrel’s Latin name oxalis acetosella, and the same thing which gives rhubarb leaves their poisonous reputation), I feel obliged to point out that sorrel leaves shouldn’t be eaten in huge quantities.