An ancient herb both medicinal and tasty, sage has been the centerpiece of tracts on healthful living for centuries. It’s uniquely pungent–some might say smoky–with bitter undertones that are reminiscent of wormwood, which like many anise-based herbs aid digestion. Today no serious kitchen is without a fresh sage plant in the garden (even in an urban one like mine, planted in a pot on the balcony or on the sunniest windowsill) nor without access to fresh or dried leaves in a good supermarket. It is amongst the top go-to herbs (with parsley, rosemary and thyme) for countless savory recipes. In the sweet category, sage also can star: in Rome we have an inventive gelato shop–Gelateria del Teatro–that mixes this versatile herb with raspberries to make it one of the most popular choices.
Historic records say that this everpresent herb–sage or Salvia officinalis–has been used by various cultures for thousands of years (it was and still is used in Chinese medicine) for both its taste and healing qualities. An evergreen with thickish, rubbery stalks it is a fragrant, hearty plant that can withstand changing weather conditions and easily survives the rainy winter months in Rome. Typically sage grows in warm, arid climates and can be found from Spain, throughout Italy to the south of France and Greece (my sister even grew it in her garden in Texas). But, Salvia officinalis, the one we use for medicinal and cooking purposes, should not be confused with another variety, Salvia divinorum, which grows in Central America and is used mostly as a psychoactive drug leading to hallucinations.
Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) wrote that the ancient Romans used sage as a diuretic or anesthetic to numb the skin during a medical intervention. During the Middle Ages monks gathered it, as well as other wild herbs and flowers, to use in teas that could cure various ailments and ward off the plague. Sage also was known as an anti-inflammatory especially good for sore throats and stomach troubles. Once infused in hot water it becomes a wonderful gargle and made into a tea it’s considered an antiseptic.
Now sage is mostly used for cooking and there are certain recipes in Italy that could not exist without it. In Rome it is one of the main herbs—with the aforementioned parsley, rosemary, thyme (plus mentuccia romana or wild mint)—essential to la cucina romana. It goes perfectly stuffed, along with lemon, inside poultry before roasting; it pairs beautifully with pork, veal and rabbit; or, it can be put into the cavity of a sea bass with a bay leaf then added to the salt crust mixture to cover the fish before putting it in the oven. Sage can be added to stews and soups of legumes—like cannellini or borlotti—even baked with veggies like pumpkin or butternut squash drizzled with olive oil and a little cinnamon sprinkled on top. But most importantly the Roman specialty saltimbocca is unthinkable without a leaf of sage attached to each piece of veal and prosciutto. It is also ground with pork meat then stuffed into casings to make tasty Roman sausages. Sauteed in brown butter it is the perfect, quick pasta sauce for tortellini or fresh egg pasta–like tagliolini–then sprinkled with freshly grated Parmigiano cheese. You can’t get much easier or delicious than that.
Sage is an herb that can be used all year round even during colder months when comforting roasts, soups and baked vegetables are on the menu. The smell itself brings back memories of warmer days and the scent of the sage bushes that grow so well in the Mediterranean. And when those winter colds strike a hot cup of sage tea–with or without honey–does the trick. Believe me, I know from experience.