Before his death in 1699, John Evelyn the younger (1655-1699) commented about Sage: “‘Tis a plant, indeed, with so many and wonderful properties as that the assiduous use of it is said to render men immortal”.
Sage is a very well known garden herb for which many health and healing claims have been attached. In ancient times it was claimed to have powers of immortality, or at least longevity. The scientific name, salvia, means health, and the word sage has come to be synonymous with wisdom, though its origin is more likely the Latin salvare, meaning to cure, or be safe or well.
Sage is a hardy perennial with woody, squared stems, covered in down. There are many varieties of sage, and the plants grow from 1 to 3 feet in height. The long oval leaves are opposite, about 2 to 4 inches long. They look pebbly and puckered and are grayish green. The leaves are softly hairy or velvety and the edges are round toothed. They are at peak flavor just before the plant begins to flower. The flowers are tubular and pink, purple, blue or white. They are a little over a half inch long and grow in whorls of four to eight per stem.
Although these days sage is better known for its culinary use, it is also known as an herbal medicine. Sage oil has antiseptic, astringent and irritant properties. It is believed that Sage tea after a meal can help digestion. It is also purported to help in the digestion of rich or fatty foods such as pork, and even sweets. While sage has many wonderful and healthful properties, it should not be taken in great quantity for any length of time.
Sage flavor is of camphor and balsam and pleasantly bitter. It is a good partner for strongly flavored foods. Young leaves may be used scattered in salads or cooked in omelets, fritters, soups, yeast breads, sausages, meat pies and stuffing. They are wonderful cooked with meats such as liver, veal, pork, fish, lamb and poultry. Artichokes, tomatoes, asparagus, carrots, squash, corn, potatoes, eggplant, green beans, onions, Brussels sprouts cabbage, oranges, lemons, garlic, cheese and lentils benefit from the flavor of sage. Whole leaves may be dipped in a batter and fried.
I use sage regularly when making pork chops. If it is fresh, chop the leaves and scatter over the pork while cooking. If dried, rub the leaves between the fingers to release the oils and scatter over the meat. Fresh leaves may grow quite large, and may be wrapped around small Cornish hens while cooking. The leaves are wonderful in a rolled pork roast. My sister once made a delicious meal using whole sage leaves rolled into veal cutlets. The veal is pounded thin and dredged in flour, then a slice of prosciutto and a slice of mozzarella placed on top, then one sage leaf over that and the cutlets are rolled, skewered with toothpicks and fried in butter for 5 minutes. White wine is added, some salt and pepper, and the rolls left to cook for another 5 minutes or more until the meat is cooked through.
The four most common varieties of sage found readily in plant nurseries are the folowing. Common Sage, Salvia officinalis, is the one found most commonly, with solid pale ashy green leaves. Variegated sage, Salvia o. Icterina has green leaves with a yellow to white border. Purple Sage, Salvia o. purpurea, has deeper purple veined and tinged leaves, and some varieties of purple sage have the underside of the leaf a paler pinkish color. Tri Colored Sage, Salvia o. Tricolor, has variegated leaves in cream, purple and green. Any of these are fine for use in cooking and are purely a matter of taste and esthetics.
Sage is easy to grow, needing full sun and well draining soil. It will come up year after year in most climates, though after 4 or more years the plant may become too woody and need to be replaced. The plant itself is quite decorative and is a great addition to any garden purely for its looks. The flowers of common sage are a striking lovely blue. Even if grown as an ornamental, it is handy for use in the kitchen. Try growing sage to see just how rewarding it can be.
Thank you for taking the time to read my article. I hope it was informative and helped you along your own culinary journey.