The politics of the spice rack: sage

Each jar and packet in the kitchen is part of a wider story, involving geography, culture and politics.

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I decided to index my herbs and spices for three reasons. The first, and let’s face it the most crucial reason is that I cannot leave my flat and therefore have started to stretch the definition of “leisure activity” to breaking point. The second was that I wanted to be able to bring an end to the annoying practice of having to unload a whole cupboard of non-perishable food stuffs because there might, just might, be another jar of cumin in there. And the third was I wanted to solve the mystery of my spice rack, which is: how can have more jars than I have space for, but not have any coriander anywhere? What herbs and spices were taking up space but not pulling their weight?

It became very clear early on that there was a runaway contender for the role of culinary bed blocker: sage. I have a staggering four jars of the stuff, bought from the summer of 2015 to the spring of 2019.  I’m not, to be frank, entirely clear as to why or how this happened – there are some recipes that I once adored, but I have gone off through overuse, like this wonderful beetroot bay bourgigon by the excellent vegetarian cookbook-writer Anna Jones – but I have never really cooked with sage, and yet I have continued to buy it.

There’s a pleasing irony here, in that like so many herbs and spices, sage or salvia officinalis to give it its proper name, originates in the Mediterranean and has spread from there by traders and conquerors: in the case of sage, by the Romans. But it wasn’t spread as an ingredient, as cumin was: but as a supposed cure-all. That it could be used to add flavour to food was only a side-benefit, but actually these were its biggest real health benefits: its antibacterial qualities helped to preserve food, while the flavour it adds to food means that you can use less salt.

Sage also appears in The Forme of Cury, one of the oldest surviving cookbooks in written in English: a book so old it predates standardised spelling. The title refers not to an ancient English attempt to make curry, but from the French cuire to cook: the closest direct translation from medieval English to modern would, I suppose, be to call it How to Cook.

So why do I have so much of it, and why can’t I work out how to get some use out of it? Frantically Googling “can sage substitute for…” and then typing in the names of spices I actually use proved a dead end. I suspect the two are linked.

One startling discovery I have made about myself from indexing my herbs and spices is that I have a weird, and somewhat racist approach to restocking spices. I believe that if I have run out of garam masala, I must have run out of a host of other spices from the Indian subcontinent – but I use turmeric at a far greater rate than I use asafoetida, with the result that I have far more of the latter than I need, and not enough of the former. I regularly run out of coriander because it is so useful that I can’t find an ethnic ghetto to pigeonhole it into – so I never restock it until I run out of it. And I have more sage than I need because it exists in my mind in a small group of “English” herbs and spices alongside rosemary, oregano, mace and thyme – all of which I use at a greater speed (read: at all) as sage.

And my helplessness around sage links back to one of the best and worst things about the English food scene: its inferiority complex. The good thing about food in England is that chefs, restaurants and ultimately people are very open to trying new foods and recipes from other cultures: the problem is this emanates from a perception that English food is innately terrible, and that good eating is a privilege to be reserved to the rich.

The more I looked for ways to deplete my sage supplies, the more I found the answer in very old recipes – ones that have essentially been abandoned. As Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says, sage is ultimately, “the offal herb”: it comes into its own when paired with the entrails and organs of meat: not just when mixed into sausages, but with brains, heart, kidneys, and lungs: all delicious cuts of meat when prepared in the right way, and which, if we’re to eat in a sustainable way,  we ought to eat a lot more of. If we want to continue to eat meat sustainably we need not only to eat less of it but to eat differently – to get much more out of the carcass. Yes, give us steak, but give us ox heart too.

I suspect England’s food problem is partly linked to attitudes around class: around the world, the recipes that get the most out of the animal carcass are the recipes made by the poor, because, essentially, the landed gentry and the aristocracy took the prime cuts, while those who worked the land had to work out how to get the best out of what was left of the meat. Traditional recipes that get the most out of the meat have a cultural cringe to them – but it’s a cringe that we badly need to lose if we’re to eat more sustainably, and if I’m ever going to clear my backlog of sage.

This week I cooked…

A wonderful aubergine and coconut milk curry from Pushpesh Pant’s India Cookbook. It was really very simple: just chopped and diced aubergine, fried with chili powder and turmeric in vegetable oil for a few minutes before I poured a can of coconut milk into it, let it cook for another eight minutes until it had bubbled away. I think would go best with plain wholewheat chapatis as it has quite a sweet taste. I had it with brown rice because I, quite frankly, could not be bothered to make my own chapatis.

This week I fucked up…

The potato and courgette bake from Anna del Conte’s Vegetables All'Italiana. This is a really good recipe book and it is incredibly easy to follow. I have cooked it hundreds of times and don’t really use the book any more. Complacency set in and I did not measure the water – I just poured some in. The flavour was alright but the texture was incredibly watery as a result. Lesson learned.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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