Flavor Investigator: Sage

Sage (Salvia Officinalis) is a hardy, evergreen, perennial shrub known for its grayish-green, velvety leaves covered in fine hairs. Furthermore, the plants flowers comes in a range of colours including blue, purple and white. The word sage comes from the Latin word salvere meaning “to be saved” as the plant in the olden times was celebrated as a medicinal herb. It is also a member of the Lamiaceae family which contains other herb members such as mint, rosemary, savory and marjoram.

Historically, the ancient Arabians believed that sage was associated with immortality and linked with increasing mental capacity.  The Chinese used sage as a substitute for tea and were willing to trade their finest teas in a ratio of 4 to 1.

Naturally, sage is found in the wild from Spain along the Mediterranean coast and including the east side of the Adriatic.  Today it still grows wild on hills in Dalmatia, a region of Croatia on the Adriatic Sea that is famed for the quality of its sage. However, due to how easily the herb can be grown it is now naturalized throughout Europe and North America.

The Flavour of Sage

Sage is a strong flavour which might not be favourable to all tastes. It has a herbaceous, savoury and astringent flavour with hints of peppermint. Fresh sage has light notes of lemon but this is lost when dried as a stronger, musty hay character develops. Due to its slightly bitter flavour it is able to pair with heavy, rich and creamy notes such as cheeses, meats and certain dairy products. In addition, it can be combined with heavier fruits such as nectarines, peaches and plums.

Varieties of Sage

It is believed that there are more than 900 varieties Salvia but the majority of them are not used for culinary purposes. Garden sage is the herb you are most likely to encounter in the grocery store with it’s warm-spicy, eucalyptus notes.  Berggarten sage is a more compact species of sage with large oval leaves, unlike that of typical garden sage. This variety has a more pungent flavour.It can be substituted for any recipe calling for Garden Sage but used at half strength.

Dalmatian sage is the variety used for commercially dried sage that is encountered by most cooks. When dried, sages flavour becomes a bit more bitter and concentrated so a little goes a long way. Finally, Clary sage has leaves which when young can be eaten raw but the older ones tend to have a bitter taste. The flowers are also edible and be added to salads.

Possible Unique Flavour Combinations

  • Sage and Apple– The two flavours create a combination reminiscent of winter. Although apples do not provide a fruity, freshness they still pair with the mustiness present in dried sage.
  • Sage and Liver- Chicken livers are heavy, strong and contain sanguinary (bloody) notes of flavour. The liver is able to bring out the fresh pine and cedar notes in sage. Sages ability to help in the digestion of fatty and oily foods, makes it a good pairing.
  • Sage and Butternut Squash- Butternut squash has a rich and nutty flavour, similar to sweet potatoes. Surprisingly, sages strong flavour is able to bring out the “meaty” flavour which is hidden in squash.



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