The Greening of a Weed

By Val Ross

Waltraut and Otto Richter Food is as faddish as fashion. What one chooses to present on one’s plate, or serve to one’s guests, is just another way of signalling one’s income, one’s beliefs (Chilean grapes? kosher beef?) and certainly one’s ability to keep abreast of style. Consider the once popular iceberg lettuce. These days, it’s a cue for food critics to stalk out of fancy restaurants. It’s perfectly pukka, however, for "good" restaurants to charge $2 and up for an hors d’oeuvre of leeks à la vinaigrette – a vegetable that a century ago was dismissed as "the asparagus of the poor."

The latest "darling of the culinary world," according to the gushing pronouncement of The New York Times, is sorrel, a nutty-lemony-grassy green used in soups, sauces and salads. A cousin of rhubarb, sorrel is native to Canada – "an aggressive, garden-variety weed," sniffs Henry Marshall of the federal department of agriculture. Though it was once a Canadian delicacy, written about by Pacific explorer Sir Alexander Mackenzie as an additive to salmon roe in the making of Indian "caviar," its legitimization as heir to the spinach salad and watercress fads has been left to trendy New York and Paris gourmets.

"It seems that this year more and more people are asking for it," says Waltraut Richter, manager of Canada’s largest specialty herb company, Otto Richter and Son, Ltd., of Goodwood, Ontario. "But it’s still not readily available," mourns Jackie Bym, food editor of Vancouver magazine. Vancouver gourmets can obtain it only occasionally from Chinatown, or imported from the U.S. Byrn did savor it recently at a private dinner prepared by acclaimed Vancouver chef Erwin Doebeli, who produced it from his own garden for marriage with a fresh salmon "à la Paul Bocuse." JeanPierre Monnet, executive chef at Montreal’s Les Halles, says sorrel (oseille in French) is common, in the spring when it’s in season, to Quebec’s better restaurants. Probably the greatest Canadian architect of the weed’s resurrection, however, is Toronto’s Tony Roldan, captain of the Canadian cooking team at the 14th World Culinary Olympics. With 1,800 one-year-old plants at his farm and another 2,000 pots on order, he is Ontario’s biggest supplier.

"But while some people pay too much to get it imported from Europe, others still ask me, ‘What is it?’" mourns Roldan. Soon, however, asking "What is it?" will be as damning a social gaffe as asking for ketchup to douse fresh salmon à la Paul Bocuse. High in vitamins, low in calories, sorrel is a natural star of Nouvelle Cuisine and people are paying $2 to $4 a bunch for it fresh, according to Toronto food boutique owners. And, though still convinced it’s a weed, Agriculture Canada’s scientists at the Morden, Manitoba, crop-testing centre have announced they will be taking a fresh look at the growing and marketing of sorrel this spring.

Originally published in Maclean’s magazine, March 17 1980.

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