sage

Salvia officinalis: kitchen sage. One of many kinds of sage (many kinds). A plant of purple whorl flowers and soft, textured, furry, spear-shaped leaves. An herb to help make you healthy and wise (wealthy is at your discretion). The ancients noted it for its many and varied medicinal effects and so named it from salvus, ‘whole, healthy’.

Sage has many seasons. It can be soft, plush, and green, or hard, dry, and brown – and, if dry, it may be whole leaf, rubbed, shredded, or powdered. Use it to season meat or take it for medicine: healthy for the stomach, the joints, the skin, the heart, the mind.

Take a leaf of fresh sage, a soft, caressing pointlet of dense green, ready to be petted. Set it on your tongue like the light touch of a glove. Allow yourself to chew it. Instantly you are in a spa in the evergreen countryside for a weekend of massage and seclusion. There is mint and scents of the mountain, then camphor and eucalyptus, thujone (the bitterness of wormwood and absinthe), tannins, lavender, juniper, and others you will never name. And, at the end, an aftertaste of white vermouth. Relax. Have another martini and, one the wiser, lie face down and become a rubbed sage.

Take a taste of dry sage, the dust or the little twigs and mummified leaves, and you will know it right away: it is the characteristic savour of turkey stuffing, needing only onions, bread, butter, and some pepper and salt.

The flavour of sage is not dominating, and yet it is not dominated.

the sage is sharp but not cutting,
Pointed but not piercing,
Straightforward but not unrestrained,
Brilliant but not blinding.

The sage does not act, and so is not defeated.
Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English

Does this seem fair, equating sage with the sage? The identity of form is deceptive: sage meaning ‘wise’ traces back to Latin sapere ‘know, be wise’; sage the plant traces to salvia, as we have seen. The transformation came in France: in the Savoie, Saintonge, and the centre of France, salvia – classically said like “sal wee a” and later “sal vee a” – seems to have softened the “lw” or “lv” to “w” and hardened the “ee” to “y” to “zh,” for the word became sauge, with that softest of “soft” g’s. Borrowed into English as sawge, it saw the aw become “aa” and then, over time and with the shifting of the vowels and the firming of the consonant, we gained our modern sage. In many other languages it has stayed variously closer to its origins: German Salbei, Hungarian zsálya, Polish szałwia, Portuguese sálvia, Italian salvia. Like the herb, the word has many seasons.

Some things are not favored by heaven. Who knows why?
Even the sage is unsure of this.
Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English

And as the word rode into the purple and moved from health to wisdom, the herb it named shifted not to the sapient but to the sapid: it became more chiefly an ingredient in cookery to season many things. In truth, there has always been an overlap; it has long been used in cooking and is still used for medicine. But the emphasis has definitively slid from one to the other.

Sage has yet other seasons as well. It is, for instance, a name for a person. There are a few Sages of note, but the one that I picture is Sage Szkabarnicki-Stuart, a young and remarkable photographer who has a wise taste for the many and varied flavours of modern life; see her work at sage.myportfolio.com. (See all of it. Be aware that what you see is what there was: she stood in that cold pond with those swans for hours each day over several days; those are real raccoons biting real bread she is really wearing. Let that be food for thought.)

But whether for Weltschmerz or any other Schmerz, we can still use this soft herb to assuage our ailments. If you are unwell in almost any way, there is evidence that sage can help. Pharmacological findings for Salvia officinalis include (per Ghorbani A, Esmaeilizadeh M, Pharmacological properties of Salvia officinalis and its components, J Tradit Complement Med 2017 Oct; 7(4): 433–440) “anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antinociceptive [that means it makes you feel less pain], antioxidant, antimicrobial, antimutagenic, antidementia, hypoglycemic [thus good for diabetics], and hypolipidemic [good for your cholesterol levels] effects.” Mind you remember that it has also been found to improve memory, mood, attention, and cognitive performance. “Cur moriatur homo cui salvia crescit in horto?” said the mediaevals (“Why die when sage grows in your garden?”).

And at the same time, sage helps animals that are already dead, or anyway it helps us to enjoy eating them. Here is a recipe for “Salsa bona a carne de castron o de capreto” (“Good sauce for goat or kid meat”) from a Venetian cookbook of the 1300s or 1400s:

La meiore salsa che fare se pò a questa carne alesse o rosto. Toy de la carne magra ben cocta e ben batuta e pesta in lo mortaro cum arquante cime de petrosemolo e menta e salvia e rosmarino e altre bone herbe che tu poi avere e maxenale con questa carne e mitige cenamo e garofali e pever e distempera questa salsa con el piú fino aceto che tu ay.

Allow me to make my best effort at rendering that:

The best sauce that you can make for this meat boiled or roasted. Take the lean meat well cooked and well ground in a mortar with enough leaves of parsley and mint and sage and rosemary and other good herbs that you may have and mix them with this meat and put in cinnamon and cloves and pepper and temper this sauce with the finest vinegar that you have.

(“And other good herbs that you may have.” How many teaspoons of that, please?) Here is a brunch recipe called “salviate” from the 1520 Catalan cookbook Libre del Coch, by Ruperto de Nola, translated by Lady Brighid ni Chiarain(I do not have the original):

Take some sage leaves, and grind them quite vigorously; and take a good quantity of eggs, and beat them and mix them with the sage; and then take a frying pan, and cast in lard in such a manner that after melting there is a finger’s breadth or more in the frying pan; and if there is no lard, take common oil which is sweet and very good, the same quantity; and when the lard or oil boils, cast in the eggs with the sage, and make of them an omelet which is well-cooked; and this omelet should be two fingers thick, or more.  And when it is well-cooked or fried, cast it on a good plate with much sugar above and below; and this omelet should be eaten hot.

And here is a recipe for “Sawgeat,” from The Forme of Curie:

Take Pork and seeþ it wel and grinde it smale and medle it wiþ ayren & brede. ygrated. do þerto powdour fort and safroun with pyner & salt. take & close litull Balles in foiles of sawge. wete it with a batour of ayren & fry it. & serue it forth.

Which is to say,

Take pork and boil it well and grind it small and meddle it with eggs and bread, grated. Add strong powder [a mixture of ginger, pepper, and other sharp spices] and saffron with pyner [pine nuts? it seems uncertain] and salt. Take and close little balls in leaves of sage. Wet it with a batter of eggs and fry it. And serve it forth.

(Unless your sage has larger leaves than my sage, those Balles will be litull indeede.)

Sage has its seasons and its seasonings; it has cared for us, and we for it. I care to have it more often, and more often fresh: I shall turn over a new leaf, and eat it.

The sage does not attempt anything very big,
And thus achieves greatness.
Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English

3 responses to “sage

  1. I enjoyed this philosophical post very much, and your photo captures all the weirdness of this odd, wise plant.

  2. grammargeddonangel

    Re: the Forme of Curie recipe (I loved cooking from that source!)

    It could be that the “little balles” aren’t actually enclosed, that is, folded, in sage leaves. They might be rolled in them, covered in that manner, before being battered and fried. One thing I learned from my time working with primary sources was that words don’t necessarily mean what we expect them to in today’s cooking context.

  3. Loved the comment: Unless your sage has larger leaves than my sage, those Balles will be litull indeede.

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