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Sacred Sage: Relaxing, Beautifying and Cooking with Clary Sage

Mar 16, 2015

Sacred Sage: Relaxing, Beautifying and Cooking with Clary Sage

This the first part of a two-part series on Clary Sage.

Today, Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea) is best known for its essential oil, which is used mainly in aromatherapy and is extracted from the plant’s aromatic foliage and flowers.

Aromatherapy focuses on relaxation of problems, including anxiety, fear, tension, paranoia and insomnia. Treatments tend to be simple, such as bathing in or being massaged with a fragrant essential oil. These are some of the most frequent ways in which Clary Sage is used.

Yet Clary, which was a favorite of the ancient Greeks and Romans, also has a long history in beauty care, cooking and healing. We'll cover its medicinal qualities in the second part of this series.

Adornment with Clary
Flower farms in eastern North Carolina grow acres of Clary Sage -- a sea of pink, purple, violet and green -- which are a big attraction during the area's annual Sage Festival from late May through early June. Yet as with so many plants, what is attractive to view isn't always attractive to smell. Some visitors walking through the fields pluck sprigs of Clary and soon drop them.

One of Clary oil's uses is as a fixative that makes the fragrance of a perfume last longer on your skin. Small amounts of fixatives are added to the mysterious mélange that form a perfume. Aside from making a fragrance more lasting, a fixative lends a base note to the blend.

Descriptions of Clary Sage's smell vary. Some people say it reminds them of dirty socks; others say it is redolent of grapefruit. Still others cite ambergris, a phenomenally expensive waste product from live whales that is used as a fixative.

Ambergris starts out smelling terrible and, over time, oxidizes into a heady fragrance that improves perfumes. It is one of the rarest substances in the world.

Similar to ambergris, the musky smell of Clary Sage grows on you. It is easy to see why North Carolina farmers would produce lots of it to create a more affordable fixative. Clary oil and the byproducts of oil extraction, called Clary concrete, are also added to lotions, soaps, shampoos and detergents. So whatever you think of Clary Sage's smell, it is the smell of money.

As evidenced by the tourism that fields of Clary bring to North Carolina and by the plants we enjoy in our garden, it's also easy to see this drought-resistant, perennial sage as an adornment in the landscape. Yet we freely admit that while some people love the fragrance of Clary Sage -- and we are among them -- others find it overly pungent up close. This may partly account for the shortage of recipes online for the herb.

Cooking with Clary
In the 16th century, herbalist Nicolas Culpeper wrote at length about the uses of Clary Sage, including making fritters and flavoring beer and wine with its leaves. His information about medicinal uses exceeded that of culinary uses. However, it is notable that the sage is still used today for the culinary purposes Culpeper mentioned.

Many contemporary references indicate that Clary can still be found in the kitchen. Texas A&M University echoes Culpeper's culinary comments in its publication 'Growing Herbs in Texas' saying that Clary leaves can be used in fritters and as flavoring for beer and wine. It also adds stews and omelets to the list.

Fritters. Clary leaf fritters originated as, and remain, a sugar-sprinkled dessert. Nowadays, they may seem like an unlikely confection; you won't find them in the usual foodie websites or magazines. Instead, Clary leaf fritters pop up in the blogs and books of herbalists and food historians such as Ivan Day, who found a number of recipes in confectionary cookbooks going back to the 14th century.

Salads and Omelets. Gardeners sometimes mix young, tender Clary leaves that are finely sliced into salads and omelets. Herbalist Susun Weed offers a simple omelet recipe for two that includes 2 tablespoons of finely chopped Clary as a seasoning.

Clary flowers and their colorful bracts also are edible, according to the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. They can be used as a garnish or added to salads. For 'best flavor,' the extension service says, remove the pistils and stamens at the center of the flower. It also warns that you should never eat any flowers treated with pesticides or grown along roadways where plants may be subject to toxic substances.

Jelly and Wine. In addition to fritters and omelets, Susun Weed also provides recipes for Clary wine and jelly. You need lots of Clary plants to produce the 2 pecks -- 4 dry gallons -- of blossoms necessary for the wine. In addition, it takes 6 months to a year for the wine to age before bottling. The jelly is a less challenging project, because it requires only 3 teaspoons of Clary leaves and can be made in less than a day.

Stews and Soups. We didn't find any stew recipes calling for Clary leaves. Although it does slightly alter flavor, Clary leaves can replace Garden Sage (Salvia oficinalis) in standard recipes.

At her website Tulips in the Woods, Northern California gardener and writer Pomona Belvedere talks about her serendipitous discovery of Clary soup as an aid in recovering from the flu. But that's a story that will have to wait for part two of this series and our discussion about the plant's healing nature.

Questions About Culinary Sages
We grow many kinds of culinary sages from countries as far flung as Greece and South Africa. If you have questions about what might be a good fit for your kitchen garden, please contact us. We do a lot of cooking with sages and would love to share our experiences.

Coming next -- Sacred Sage: Healing with Clary Sage.

Updated 5/28/2017

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