Food and Drink: Sage advice and secrets of perfect pork

THERE I was, preparing one of the many dozens of pasta sauces, dropping sage in right after preparing the basic soffrito of oil and garlic, when a tall figure loomed by me and said, 'If you want my honest opinion, I think you use too much sage in your cooking. I remember the liver you made . . .'

Pondering what she said, I tasted often as that sauce simmered away all day, reducing its tomatoes to the thick, rich paste I favour for certain kinds of pasta (ie, most thick dry varieties such as penne, or rigatoni) and could detect no excess of sage. Nor could she by the time the sauce reached the table.

But it is true of sage, as of most fresh herbs, that there are strong individual reactions. Rosemary can be quite overwhelming, and many restaurants indeed overdo it, to the point where a roast chicken with rosemary tastes like an embrocation heavy with camphor. Mint, too, is often exaggerated.

But sage? Sage is like a dark undertow; it is gravelly, earthy, salty; like gunpowder in blends of tea, it ties together different, sometimes sharply contrasting tastes. We had a homoeopathic doctor staying with us, and his handbook reveals this quality. Salvia officinalis, of the many members of the mint family (such as basil, oregano, marjoram and rosemary), is especially useful for excess sweat, night sweats and bad dreams, for a 'right-sided tearing pain in bones of jaw and temple, pain in teeth and gums'. In short, it deals with the dark things of life. It also prevents oxidation, hence its utility with fat or oily foods.

Most of us come across sage in sausage and stuffing, because it blends particularly well with pork and in its dried form (not that much like its fresh) it offers no resistance to blends of forcemeat. In Italy, it is paramount with liver (calf's liver, cut fine, sauteed over a low flame in ample butter, turned over once and sprinkled with coarsely chopped fresh sage) and occasionally as part (like Italian parsley) of the simplest of pasta dressings: butter or oil plus one herb.

Hardy, not especially difficult to grow, fresh sage is a fundamental part of most poultry stuffings, and of many sauces. But with pork it is king.

Here are two characteristic French recipes in which sage features with all the honour it is owed. (Both are adapted from the invaluable 200 Recettes Secretes de la Cuisine Francaise by 'Bifrons', first published in Monte Carlo in 1965.)

The first is tantalisingly called 'Ham, smoked and grilled with sage, without Ham']

You will need several pieces of longish cuts of cheap pork, with a fair amount of fat streaked in the lean (of the kind that are often now sold for wok cooking), some smoked lard or breast of pork sliced very thin, and some large leaves of fresh sage.

Take a length of aluminium foil longer than each piece of meat, and first lay down a length of lard, then your sliced pork and finally a few leaves of sage. Pepper but do not salt. Close the foil around each batch and twist the ends shut. The result should look like a good cigar and can be cooked on charcoal or in a hot oven for between 30 and 40 minutes, depending on the thickness of your pork.

The end product, in the words of the author, is a substitute for the finest of hams: pink, tender, smoky and aromatic. It is also delicious, and he is right to suggest it should be served with baked potatoes.

The second is 'Fillet of Pork with Sage'. If you have an earthenware pot that you can put on a hot fire (a cast iron frying pan will do), put in a soup-spoon of lard. As soon as it is melted, take the fillets of pork (cut from the tenderloin and flattened), and some pork bones (rib ends) and brown thoroughly, even to excess. Take them out and conserve the resulting fat.

Now add two tablespoonfuls of olive oil and something like a pint of lukewarm water, two whole cloves of garlic (unpeeled) and (for four) 20 leaves of fresh sage, plus one leaf of mint to bring out the flavour of the sage. When these have blended properly, return the pork to the pan, add another 10 leaves of sage and grind fresh pepper to taste. Cover with care and allow to simmer for three hours, turning occasionally and adding water (an absolute minimum) if needed. This is an excellent dish hot or cold.

If, after experimenting, you like the flavour of sage at its solitary best, you can also try it chopped coarsely into any salad that contains fatty meats, such as bacon, ham or sausages; inside the centre leaves of artichokes when these are not entirely fresh; or in a winter soup made of cheap cuts of mutton with the juice of lemons and some quartered potatoes (when these crumble, add rice).

No, I do not think I use too much sage, but you must be the judge of your own taste-buds, and remember that dried sage is likely to be less overwhelming than fresh.

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