The leaves ‘sharpened the appetite, strengthened the heart, and gave so great a sharpness to a salad…that it should never be omitted”

John Evelyn 1620 – 1706

That the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence is a prosaic reduction of Ovid’s earlier, more eloquent proposition; “the harvest is always richer in another man’s field”. And given that this is a tale of ingredients rather than lawns, allow me to side with Ovid on this one.

We cultivate (or can cultivate) a substantial raft of sublime ingredients in this country, but in order to put them into service we often choose to import recipes from what we see as Mediterranean Europe. As a result, and thanks to thousands of litres of aviation fuel, we frequently go on to import the ingredients too. Or rather, supermarkets do, ostensibly on our behalf.

I think the recipe books of the exalted Elizabeth David and the onset of package tours played their early part in our paradisical dash for the Med, as did Peter Mayle and his illusionary brioche ripper A Year in Provence (1989). That best-selling paperback probably sealed the deal for many Brits, as whilst looking down from our beer brewing, chilly north, to the sybaritic sun-drenched vineyards of the south, we assumed a state of transcendental wonderment. Therein lay that delusionary land, somewhat paradoxically made up of Syrian olives, Mexican tomatoes, Chinese garlic, Meso-american coffee, Georgian grapes, Peruvian potatoes – the formerly reluctant ingredient of ‘French’ fries – and some Indonesian bananas, originally shipped to the USA, only to return as a Split.

A fable often dressed as authentic. Although a most enchanting fable nevertheless. And where would ’Death by Chocolate’ be without the colonisation of the Incas, and their Cacao beans in particular, by the genocidal Spanish conquistadores . Unlike it’s unfortunate emperor Atahualpa – the ubiquitous cake is very much alive it seems.

Given that both ingredients and recipes appear as transient as Bedouin Arabs, why seek gastronomic legitimacy in the kitchen at all? Why not abandon a sense of place in our choice of supper and simply follow the contemporary supermarkets’ lead, allowing global monocultures to determine our diet, our health and our bank balance? They’ve been very successful at controlling (if not exactly enhancing) all three so far.

And in forging an answer, best not forget the existential outcome of this dull, monolithic food system. One of a default inducement to use intense farming techniques, corrupting both our soil and our atmosphere on an unimaginable scale.

But as supermarkets continue to obfuscate many of our food origins and dramatically limit our choices, we are in danger of losing an inexpensive, healthy, exciting and sustainable dietary repetoire. Primarily that means ingredients. And if we cared about our ingredients and their geographical origins as much as the French, then it means terroir too. Respect for soil and sea means we are able to eat and drink the biology of our landscape every single day, unprocessed and unmediated. And if we took a little time over the concept of terroir as well, it follows that we could simply allow the seasons to write our menus.

All well and good, but for most of us, a sound recipe is still a necessity when suppertime calls.

Most of our TV chefs, obsessed with fame and novel techniques, can at least take pride in keeping the UK’s publishing industry afloat. Inherent in this pursuit however is the imperative to leapfrog over each successive gastronomic publication in order to provide novelty, fashionability and the delusion of singular exclusivity, which means that authoritative recipes are often the first casualties of this particular war.

All this flashed passed as I wandered around what I like to address as my vegetable plot in search of inspiration.  At this time of year most vegetables move away from bright, primary colours and take on the hues of military camouflage – a colourway veering towards green and umber. Yet there, still vying for culinary attention, was a medium sized pot bursting with the lime green, shield-shaped leaves of Sorrel, that cosseted French standby, Rumex scutatus. Spinach and rhubarb doused in lemon juice might adequately sum up the flavour profile. Wilted with cream it has long provided a classic sauce for fish or chicken along with the citric tang it adds to salads and a refreshing addition to an omelette, but for this home cook, sorrel soup was to be the day’s star performer.

When it comes to supply, I’m not too sure as to whether the local supermarket has ever heard of it, but you may be lucky in the crumbling archaeology of our high streets to still locate a greengrocer who might live up to his or her nomenclature. Otherwise ‘phone a friend, in the UK it’s often discovered as a weed. In Spain and France, it’s almost priced as one.

But if you chose to grow it, it won’t fail you. Think horseradish or mint, it can take over entire postcodes let alone gardens so a ceramic pot serves just fine as captive, quintessential terroir. So abundant, so hardy, so inexpensive to cultivate and so forgiving of our British climate, yet it was disappointingly elusive amidst the compendium of English cookbooks in my collection. Fallen off the shelf or out of fashion, lacking glamour or mystique, one of so many ingredients we have unwittingly turned our backs on whilst peering at the “other man’s field”. Search, as I was forced to, amongst my French cookbooks, and I couldn’t move for Sorrel recipes.

New cookbooks, like imported ingredients, are expensive and self-serving, at least for the publishers and the retailers. Always remember that wider, seasonal choice, unprocessed ingredients, frugality and simplicity are the antithesis of the supermarket business model. They often clash with the ego of the aspirant cookbook author too. Locate the elementary and the seemingly ordinary, as often as we can – and make more fulfilling and exciting meals as a result.

I finish, ironically, on the very fine dictum of Auguste Escoffier,Faites simple’ – ‘Keep it simple’.

Yes you’re right, it’s a Frenchman pointing out the gastronomically obvious. When will a simple, affordable, home grown (and home cooked) food renaissance truly begin in the UK? Against the tide of retail monopolies, regrettably, a few farmer’s markets do not yet a culture make.

Sorrel soup.  Loosely adapted from Tante Marie’s French Kitchen [1950]

Serves 4 to 6

50g butter

1 small onion, chopped

2 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped

1 leek, sliced

250g potatoes, cut into 2cm cubes

1 litre chicken or veg stock

250g sorrel, stalks removed

4 tbsp single cream

A little salt, if needed

Croutons would be nice, but not obligatory

Melt the butter in a large saucepan, then add the onion, garlic, leek and potatoes. Cook over a medium heat for about 15 minutes or until softened.

Add the stock and the sorrel and cook for another 15-20 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Blend until smooth.

Season with salt and lots of black pepper. Serve in warm bowls with a flourish of cream.

If you feel the soup has taken on a khaki hue then this nifty tip will return it to a bright green.

Sorrel Paste
Sorrell leaves 90 g  stems trimmed
30 g softened butter or olive oi

Pulse the sorrel leaves in a food processor until finely chopped. Add the butter or olive oil, and process until a smooth paste forms.l

After you’ve pureed the soup (I use a stick blender), stir in the sorrel paste. Adjust seasonings, and serve hot or cold. Alternately, add the soup directly to the sorrel paste in the food processor, and blend everything until smooth. Adjust seasonings, and reheat, if necessary.

Wine thoughts

I’m presently embarked on a road trip around East Anglia, looking in part at vineyards across the region. I hope to find suitable recommendations as a result. Meanwhile, something crisp and white, with the Loire Valley providing a good hunting ground to start off with. My choice is something like a white Volnay, Clos de Chênes, from the Touraine region, made of crisp, spiky Chenin. An initial hit of lemony acidity, warmed with white pepper spice, but with a background of almost honeyed texture to mingle with the creamy swirl sitting on top of our soup.