The Sage Maven

With its alluring, downy, grey-green leaves and lingering depth of flavour, it's hard to resist the pungent appeal of sage.Our garden has been a rain forest of sage this autumn and it was time for a severe cutting back,which only means one thing plenty of work for the herb task master here.Along with parsley, it's perhaps the herb most leant on by English cooks to give a savoury punch to stews, sausages and stuffings. Long before England´s dalliance with basil, coriander and more exotic flavourings, sage stole the English hearts and starred in some of their favourite dishes.Or did it? Well when I went to consult the arch English oracle Elizabeth David on the subject of sage how surprised was I with what I unearthed.Gastronomic Maven Elizabeth David is pretty damning in her book Summer Cooking:
 "Of that very English herb sage I have very little to say except that… it seems to me to be altogether too blatant, and used far too much; its all-pervading presence in stuffings and sausages is perhaps responsible for the distaste for herbs which many English people feel." 
 She liked the dried stuff even less:   
 "It deadens the food with its musty, dried blood scent."
Oh dear. That qualifies as a rant, doesn't it? in "Spices,salt and aromatics in the English kitchen", she expresses her distaste for rosemary too 

"With sage,this figures in my kitchen as a decoration only-with their grey-green and reddish leaves both herbs are beautiful in a jug of country flowers,but in cooking I don´t want either"........many Italians stuff joints of lamb and pork bursting with rosemary,and the result is perfectly awful.The meat is drowned in the acrid taste of the herb and the spiky little leaves get stuck between your teeth".
Grow some, chop some, cook some, eat some – I hope you'll do all you can to increase their pervading presence. Don't let Elizabeth David talk you out of it.
So having remembered that La David was never one known for her subtlety or lack of nuance I moved on. Saltimbocca,sausages,sauce, I thought,Sage is a great companion to pancetta, bacon and pretty much anything porky,so what I ended up with was a very tasty side dish of french beans and bacon.

Green beans with sage and pancetta
serves four as a side dish
400g green beans, tailed
20g butter
200g pancetta, cut into small cubes
20 sage leaves, 8 finely shredded, 12 left whole
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tbsp olive oil (or rapeseed oil)

Bring a pan of salted water to a boil. Cook the beans until just al dente, about four minutes, then drain.While the beans are cooking, warm the butter in a large frying pan and sauté the pancetta until it begins to take on some colour. Add the shredded sage leaves and fry for another minute. Tip in the beans, season, and give everything a good stir. Keep warm.
In a small frying pan, warm the oil over a medium-high heat. Sauté the whole sage leaves for a few seconds until crisp, scatter over the beans and pancetta, and serve.


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