Food and Drink: First taste of spring, killed off by the cat: The sharp, green flavour of sorrel makes it a splendid partner for fish and eggs; it also produces an invigorating soup

'OUTRAGED and Horrified of north London' describes me at the moment. After years of picking sorrel by the handful from my own plant, I have recently had to buy it. The price is despicable - 59p for a measly 15g packet from my local Sainsbury's. I reckon it takes about four of them to make up what I consider a handful, about the smallest amount you can get away with to make a decent impression on a dish for four people.

The answer, of course, is to grow your own. You do not need green fingers. You do not even need a garden - a moderately capacious pot on the balcony, or even the windowsill, will do fine. Sorrel flourishes with minimal attention, popping up year in, year out, a herald of spring. In my experience the only thing that can stop it is cat's pee and that, thanks to my two dear little felines, is what has forced me to scavenge for it in the shops. I cannot imagine this is a serious problem for commercial growers, so I am at a loss to understand why the price is so high. Someone is laughing all the way to the bank.

Technically speaking, sorrel is a herb in that it is used as a flavouring. After that the resemblance to other herbs stops. It has a tart green taste that is quite unique. It is occasionally suggested that you can replace it with spinach and liberal sploshes of lemon juice, but in fact this is a hopeless substitute. If you do not grow it, and balk at the shop price, then I am afraid you will have to do without.

Though sorrel has a long history in Britain, I always associate it with France, where every garden seems to have a few plants tucked away within easy reach of the kitchen door. It is part and parcel of ordinary country cooking, but just as at home on the menus of the grandest three-star restaurants. Indeed, the commonest form of sorrel is more correctly known as French sorrel. If you are lucky you may also come across the pretty small- leaved Buckler sorrel, slightly milder in acidity and ideal for salads, where too much large-leaved sorrel can be overpowering.

Sorrel really comes into its own when it is cooked, though it needs only the briefest of heating to bring out its strengths. When I had a lusty plant in the garden the first sorrel dish of the year would always be soup, smooth and invigorating, guaranteed to slough off the lethargy of winter foods. With the plant replenishing its leaves at breakneck speed, I could then move on to other ways of using it.

Sorrel and fish were made for each other, a natural partnership if ever there were one. Eggs are another perfect match - poached eggs with sorrel sauce, baked eggs, or an omelette (either fill the finished omelette with a little sorrel puree and a dollop of creme fraiche, or fold raw shredded sorrel in with the eggs). White meats such as chicken or veal also benefit from the zest of fresh green sorrel.

Basic Sorrel Puree

This puree is the basis for the simplest sorrel sauce - just add about 1/4 pint of double cream, off the heat, and bring back to the boil, adding a few tablespoons of cooking juices from fish or chicken if you have them.

It can also be frozen, a good way to save sorrel for the winter. The proportion of sorrel to butter can be varied.

Ingredients: 2oz (56g) sorrel

1oz (28g) butter

Preparation: Snip out any tough stalks (if the sorrel is young with slender stalks, then there is no need to remove them). Pile the leaves up on top of each other. Roll up like a cigar and slice thinly to give fine shreds or, more technically and elegantly speaking, a 'chiffonade'. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and add the sorrel. Stir over a medium heat for around 3-5 minutes until the mixture becomes a dark khaki sludge.

A more elegant Sorrel Sauce

In this sauce, the sorrel is added right at the end to preserve its purest, lively flavour. Serve with fish, chicken or poached eggs.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 1-2oz (28-56g) sorrel

2 shallots, finely chopped

2fl oz (60ml) dry vermouth

4fl oz (120ml) fish or chicken stock

1/4 pint double cream

Preparation: Make a chiffonade of the sorrel (see puree), and set aside. Put the shallots into a pan with the vermouth and the chicken stock. Boil until reduced to about 4 tablespoons. Now stir in the cream and bring back to the boil. Add the sorrel, salt and pepper, stir, bring up to the boil again. Taste and adjust seasoning and serve.

Spring Soup

A recipe for a small amount of sorrel - the flavour comes through, backed up by the pepperiness of watercress.

Serves 6

Ingredients: 2oz (56g) sorrel

1 bunch watercress

2tbs olive oil

1 bunch spring onions; white and green, trimmed and chopped

12oz (340g) potato, peeled and diced

1 bouquet garni

1tbs flour

2 1/2 pints light chicken or vegetable stock

6tbs double cream (optional)

salt and pepper

Preparation: Cut out and discard any tough stems from the sorrel, then shred leaves roughly. Discard any damaged watercress leaves, then cut leaves away from stalks. Set leaves aside. Chop the stalks roughly.

Warm the oil in a large pan and add the spring onions, watercress stalks, potato and bouquet garni. Stir to coat in oil, then cover and sweat over a low heat for 10 minutes, stirring once or twice. Sprinkle over the flour, then stir for a minute or so. Add stock, salt and pepper and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10-15 minutes until potato is soft. Cool for a few minutes, remove bouquet garni, then stir in the watercress leaves and sorrel. Liquidise in batches and return to the pan. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding cream if using. Reheat without boiling and serve.

Sorrel Fritters

Another recipe that makes the most of a few leaves of sorrel. The fritters are excellent with grilled fish, but must be made right at the last moment.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 8-12 sorrel leaves

seasoned flour

2 eggs, lightly beaten

butter and oil for frying

salt and pepper

Preparation: Leave the stalks on the sorrel to act as handles. Wash well and dry. Coat them first in flour, then in egg and then back in flour, making sure they are evenly coated each time.

Heat 1oz butter with 2tbs oil in a frying pan over a brisk heat. Fry coated leaves until golden brown on both sides. Drain briefly on kitchen paper, season with salt and pepper and eat.

Baked Eggs with Sorrel

The mildness of baked eggs is lifted by the hidden layer of sorrel at the bottom of each ramekin. This is a lovely first course for a simple May dinner.

Serves 4 as a first course

Ingredients: 2oz (56g) sorrel

1/2 oz (14g) butter

4 eggs

4 dessertspoons double cream

salt and pepper

Preparation: Make a puree with the sorrel and butter. Heat the oven to 190C/375F/gas 5. Set four ramekins in a roasting tin and heat through in the oven for 5 minutes. Meanwhile boil the kettle. Take out the ramekins and quickly divide the sorrel puree among them. Break an egg gently into each one and add a dessertspoon of cream. Season with pepper only (salt hardens the white in the oven). Pour about an inch of hot water into the roasting tin around the dishes, cover loosely with foil and whizz back into the oven. They should be cooked within 7-10 minutes, whites just set, yolks tender and runny. Season with salt and serve.

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