What herb played such an important role in ancient Roman life that in addition to making a ceremonial sacrifice of food and wine, gatherers were required to be freshly bathed, adorned with clean garments, and provided with special tools before it could be harvested? If you said sage, you are correct!
Why did the Romans hold this herb, a member of the humble mint family, in such high esteem? Well, it wasn’t because it was such an indispensable flavoring for turkey stuffing–that was a long way off. It was because of its many medicinal uses, which covered everything from treating the prevalent digestive issues of the day (probably caused by a rich and fatty Roman diet), to poor appetite, consumption, ulcers, excessive sweating, and cramps. It was said, “Why should anyone die who has sage in their garden?”
The Romans even used it as a form of tooth paste to whiten their teeth. It’s botanical name “salvia” is thought to derive from the Latin word “salvere” meaning to heal or to save, as in the word “salvation.” On top of its many curative qualities, sage was also believed to improve memory; something which seems to be borne out by recent studies that show sage can be effective in treating cases of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. Modern herbalists recommend sage to help stop breast milk production while weaning, to ease hot flashes and to treat diarrhea, colds, dandruff, and scalp infections.
Sage is an evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean, which has since become naturalized in many places around the world. Though it was mostly known for it’s medicinal properties in the ancient world, there is also evidence that people have been cooking with it for thousands of years. A Greek recipe for sage flavored pancakes of all things has been dated to before the 5th Century BC. The Romans brought the herb to Great Britain where it eventually joined the quartet of essential seasonings known to fans of Simon and Garfunkel, along with parsley, rosemary, and thyme. Charlemagne had it planted in his imperial gardens and during the Middle Ages it was a staple in monastery gardens.
Sage’s piney, slightly peppery flavor complements poultry and pork and appears in many European cuisines, most notably Italian and Balkan. The practice of making a delicious onion and sage stuffing for roasted poultry began in England and was adopted here as an accompaniment to the Thanksgiving or Christmas roast turkey.
Sage is unusual among herbs for being equally fragrant in several different forms. The leaves can be used fresh, dried whole, “rubbed” (in which the leaves are crumbled), and ground. There are several hundred species of sage, but the cultivars of Salvia officinalis are best suited for culinary purposes. Currently trendy in restaurants is a garnish of battered and fried fresh leaves, as are sage-flavored butters and vinegars.
One of my favorite ways to use fresh sage is the traditional Italian recipe “Saltimbocca.” It’s usually made with veal but I like to use chicken breast, filleted and pounded thin. Sprinkle each piece of chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Place a large fresh sage leaf on each cutlet and top with a slice of prosciutto. Melt a couple of tablespoons of butter in a large skillet and cook the prepared chicken, prosciutto-side down until brown, about 1 minute, turn over and cook another minute until the other side is also nicely browned. Keep the cutlets warm in baking sheet in the oven while you make a sauce with the pan drippings. Add a cup of white wine to the skillet and cook over high heat, scraping up the browned bits, until liquid is reduced by a third–about 3 minutes. Transfer chicken pieces to a serving platter, add any drippings from the baking sheet, swirl in one more tablespoon of butter, pour the sauce over and serve. Saltimbocca means “leap in the mouth” and when I make these they sure do!
Listen to Lisa’s Audio:[audio:http://www.pawlingpublicradio.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/130919_Spice-the-Final-Frontier_Sage.mp3|Titles = Sage]