Today was the day – I finally had all seven herbs together for Grüne Soße, the famous cold herb sauce from my hometown Frankfurt. In the city and its surroundings, the seven herbs are sold in a white paper wrapping with the recipe printed on it. Here in America, six of the seven herbs come from my garden, and the seventh, alfalfa, from a sprouter on the windowsill in my kitchen.
It is an urban legend that Grüne Soße was Goethe’s favorite dish, as the organizers of the Grüne Soße Festival point out on their website. Yes, Grüne Soße is so special to Frankfurt that since 2009 the dish has its own festival, with a competition for high-school classes to determine who makes the best Grüne Soße.
There is also a Grüne Soße Memorial in Frankfurt’s Oberrad neigborhood, traditionally an area with many greenhouses and nurseries, where the herbs for Grüne Soße are grown. The memorial consists of seven small greenhouses, each in a different shade of green representing the seven herbs that go into authentic Grüne Soße. The memorial is illuminated at night.
A dish with such fame of course attracts copycats. In 2011, the growers of Grüne Soße applied for the EU’s Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) so that only Grüne Soße made with herbs grown in Frankfurt and surroundings may be sold as Frankfurter Grüne Soße, or Frankfurter Grie Soß, as it is called in Frankfurt dialect. The application is pending.
Protected name or not, there is one iron rule about Grüne Soße – it should never contain dill, because its flavor is overpowering and it would disturb the fine balance of the other herbs. The Grüne Soße Festival has capitalized on this and sells cutting boards and T-shirts with the English slogan, “Kill Dill.”
Grüne Soße is one of the reasons I started gardening ten years ago when I could not find the herbs that I needed for German cooking. My herb garden with its culinary and medicinal herbs is a miniature version of herb gardens in German monasteries, a tradition that goes back to the ninth century. The first recorded monastery herb garden was installed by Frankish abbot Walahfrid Strabo at the Reichenau Monastery, on Reichenau Island in Lake Constance. In a work of 444 verses, “De cultura hortorum” (“On the Culture of Gardening”), aka “Hortulus”, he described the plants in his garden. The herb garden at the Reichenau Monastery still exists today.
As I often get questions about the herbs in my garden, especially the lesser-known herbs used in German cooking, here is a little garden tour.
Sorrel (Sauerampfer) – This perennial herb, apart from its use as one of the seven herbs in Grüne Soße, was one of the hopelessly old-fashioned herbs that only elderly neighbors grew and ate when I grew up. But dishes with sorrel from German regional cuisine have come back, such as Trout with Sorrel Sauce, which was featured in my recent article in Saveur. Due to its high oxalic acid content, sorrel must be cooked in a non-reactive pot.
Borage (Borretsch) – A tender annual with a cucumber flavor and also one of the seven herbs in Grüne Soße. Both the leaves and flowers are edible. With its bright purplish blue flower borage is not only pretty but it also attracts bees as pollinators. Rabbits like borage just as much, therefore I can only grow it inside my fenced-in vegetable garden. I scatter the plants throughout the garden. Borage reseeds itself freely if you let it.
Chervil (Kerbel) – A tender annual with filigree leaves and a faint anise flavor, chervil is not only used in Grüne Soße but also in Cream of Chervil Soup, a delectable spring soup (for the recipe, see also Saveur). In Grüne Soße it can be substituted with tarragon or fennel fronds.
Pimpinelle (Pimpernelle) – This annual herb, also known as salad burnet, has a slightly bitter cucumber flavor. It is mainly used for Grüne Soße where it can be substituted with the more commonly grown lemon balm.
Lovage (Liebstöckel) – Better known as Maggikraut in German, this perennial has an intense celery flavor. It can get very tall, up to seven feet. I usually add a few leaves of lovage to soup or stock when I am out of celery.
Sweet woodruff (Waldmeister) – This shade-loving perennial herb is used to infuse syrup and old-fashioned Waldmeisterbowle, a punch with white and sparkling wine that has seen a comeback in recent years. Commercially produced Waldmeister products such as the jell-o dessert (Waldmeister Wackelpudding) are usually a toxic green and have not much in common with the herb.
Ramsons (Bärlauch) – I pondered whether I should include ramsons in this list because there is so much to say about it that is deserves its own post. Over the past decade, this European relative of ramps has become all the rave in Germany. Foraging ramps in the woods is a popular spring outing, and many people now also grow it in their garden. German recipes with ramsons abound. Ramsons are incorporated into just about anything: pesto, pasta, cheese, sausage, bread… Unlike ramps, only the leaves of ramsons are harvested, a much more sustainable way of harvesting.
Savory (Bohnenkraut) – As the German name, which means “bean herb”, indicates, savory is mainly used for beans. There are two types of savory, the tender annual summer savory, and the perennial winter savory with tougher leaves. I had never used savory for anything but green beans until I started baking what my husband calls “Claire’s Bread”, named for our daughter’s friend who gave me the recipe. I cannot find savory plants at local nurseries, and starting savory from seed is a lengthy hit-and-miss process but that favorite bread of ours is reason enough to grow savory every summer (see my gardening blog for the bread recipe).