Whenever I spend February in Saint Montan I’m reminded of so many chilly, winter days in Devon where I gardened for 20 years. Saint Montan is often described as sitting at ‘les portes de Provence’ and the summers do indeed feel Mediterranean; but the season of short days often feels far from the warm weather further south in Menton.
Few plants flourish when the cold mistral wind billows down the Rhône valley and the leaves have fallen from many of my favourite herbs. Yet the handsome grey-leaved sage also known as Garden Sage rarely lets one down. Its velvety leaves feel like the plush on a Victorian chair and its fragrance hinting at Indian tea with a flavour reminiscent of marjoram is valued in my kitchen.
Used with discretion, fresh sage is a perfect seasoning in the kind of rich dishes we favour during cold weather. Highly-flavoured meats like goose, duck, calves’ liver and venison are all excellent stuffed with a sage mixture or served with a simple sage-flecked apple sauce. And though basil is the herb typical of summer cooking, my winter choice is often fresh sage.
It’s a pity that many people have had to rely on the dried version of the herb. And it may be that dried crumbling leaves have harmed the reputation of the plant. In the 4th century BC, sage was highly valued in Greece and in Britain the Druids believed that a potion of sage was sufficiently powerful to revive the dead. It’s rather a come-down for a herb with such ancient history to end up dessicated, crushed and mixed with dehydrated onions and breadcrumbs inside a packet of commercially manufactured stuffing mixture.
Garden sage, Salvia officinalis, is often one of the easiest perennial herbs to grow. My plants flourish with very little care, though they prefer a warm, sunny position preferably in light, well-drained soil; growing 18-20 ins/ 40-50 cm high and ideally clipped back in early autumn to maintain its shape.
The sage plant in my small paved garden in Oxford prefers to spread itself luxuriously, whereas my plants in Saint Montan retain their shape and concentrate on producing their fragrant bright blue flowers.
Sage can be grown from seed or from woody cuttings – I place then in a shady spot amongst other shrubs or tuck tham into pots of summer flowers. Not all cuttings take but there are always some that go on to produce healthy plants.
If you have room, plant a variety of sages: the beautiful purple-leaved specimen, Salvia officinalis purpurea, often described as red sage; the milder-flavoured green and gold sage, Salvia officinalis icterina, and the green, gold and pink-leaved variety, Salvia officinalis tricolor. Though, I find these attractive sages with variegated leaves are slightly less hardy than their sturdy grey-leaved forebear.
The least hardy but very beautiful sage is Pineapple Sage, Salviaelegans(S.rutilans) with pointed mid-green pineapple-scented leaves and edible scarlet flowers. In Saint Montan, I grow the plant in a large pot on the terrace in summer, moving it to a protected spot for the winter. But a neighbour grows pineapple sage in open ground well protected by a tall hedge.
All sage flowers are edible and I like to scatter then over green salads. The herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper, says that a conserve made of sage flowers aids the memory, but somehow I keep forgetting to make some.
Along the Adriatic coast, honey from bees that have worked flowering wild sage is prized for its fine flavour and medicinal properties. Its botanical name salvia derived from the Latin s alvere, to be saved or healed, is a reference to its curative quality.
In the 17th century, Nicholas Culpeper’s comment that ‘sage is a shrubby plant’ growing in every garden shows how popular this herb once was. Before the arrival of China tea, an infusion of the leaves – called ‘sage tea’- was widely drunk. Hannah Glasse has a recipe for a drink concocted from the leaves of both sage and lemon balm plus a slice of lemon, a little sugar and a glass of wine diluted with hot water. Another 18th century cookery book has a recipe for small meat balls wrapped in sage leaves, dipped in batter and then fried.
I wonder if the English fondness for this Mediterranean herb is stronger in northen counties? Delicious Sage Derby cheese with its ribbon of crushed leaves, and also a Leek and Sage Tart hail from this region. Could it be that Sage Ale, a powerful beverage flavoured with sage, as well as fennel, bettony and scabious, still has a following somewhere in the north of England?