Desperately Seeking Sorrel

Every spring, the New York Times showcases a single sorrel recipe. They don’t draw attention to it, and most people probably don’t give it much thought.

But for the sorrel aficionados out there, it’s the equivalent of the announcement of the Academy Award nominees or the release of college football’s first BCS rankings. It is anticipated.

This year’s recipe was for poached eggs in a buttery sorrel sauce. Last year was a sorrel and stinging nettle soup. Naturally, the recipe triggers a run on sorrel, which makes it even more difficult than it usually is to find some.

I couldn’t get any last season. Not at the Giant. Not at the Rehoboth Farmer’s Market. Not even from Whole Foods in Washington. So when I found myself in Manhattan recently on a Wednesday afternoon and with an hour to kill before my next meeting, of course, I made a beeline to the green market at Broadway and 17th.

There were cartons of fresh fava beans and containers of fresh cow’s milk. Honey to eat. Bees wax to burn. Apple wine and apple cider. And because it’s springtime, bountiful greens. Ramps, yes, but sorrel, no.

I was about to give up, when I spotted a fuzzy young farmer at a tiny organic cheese and herb stall. He was staring intently at me, as if he could sense my desire. I approached cautiously, not wanting to get my hopes up, and asked him if I could see it. With a knowing grin, he hauled it out.

“You like it,” he asked? What wasn’t to like? “It’s big, right?” It was indeed an impressive specimen, I had to say, and a fancy French variety — Blonde de Lyon, to be precise. My mouth was watering. The French, you see, are responsible for bringing sorrel under cultivation to improve the quality and the flavor of the leaves. Until the late 1600s, it was gathered from the wild. Most markets carry only the common type, if they carry it at all. This was indeed a fortunate find.

I purchased the only one he had left, which I then transported around for the rest of the day, to meetings, to a cocktail party, and then back to Washington on the train. It’s currently sitting in a big terra cotta pot in my back yard on Columbia Avenue.

By now, you may have probably surmised that sorrel is a delightful potherb and one of spring and summer’s most special greens. If you haven’t heard much about it, well, that’s because Americans tend not to like its somewhat sour, acidic taste.

The plant’s distinctive taste is due to oxalic acid, which is, in fact, a poison. In small quantities, sorrel is harmless. In large quantities, it can be fatal. But, if you open your mouth and your mind to it you’ll find sorrel to be an adventuresome and tangy taste sensation that can take your taste buds through all of the following: limes, lemons, spinach, rhubarb, cabbage and amaranth.

What other green can do all that?

Personally, I think sorrel is best enjoyed as a chilled soup on an exceptionally hot day and served with a French white wine, preferably a Sancerre or a Pouilly-Fumé from the Loire Valley. While there are many recipes for sorrel soup, I like Julia Child’s the best. It pays proper homage to the leafy vegetable.

One final note: to cultivate a taste for sorrel is a commitment. You must first find it. And then you must buy it. In a gourmet market, you can expect to pay up to $6 a bunch. For a decent sorrel soup, you’ll need about 5 bunches, plus heavy cream, eggs, and chicken stock. Don’t worry that it costs more than lobster bisque. A thirty-dollar soup is a small price to pay for a taste that is like no other.

French gourmet and culinary writer Francis Amunategui once declared sorrel soup rich enough for the governor of the Bank of France. How appropriate is that? You’d have to have access to all the franks of the realm to really indulge your taste for it.

Bon appetit.

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