Sage.

I have finally conquered my white whale. I have found the perfect biscuit recipe. But more on that later…

In order to talk to you about my most recent success, I’m first going to tell you about sage and the medicinal properties that the ancients thought it had. There’s a link, I promise. It may seem odd to the modern reader, but the herb was primarily used for medical, rather than culinary, purposes. 

The big man himself ascribed the herb to have drying and astringent properties (see Hippocrates, Regimen 54) – so, looking further at specific remedies, we should expect to see sage used to be used in remedies for diseases that are caused by an overabundance of moisture. I really am going to do a post on the humors and humoral medicine next – so stay tuned for a more detailed (and completely captivating) discussion of humoral physiology and fluxes. Yay fluxes!

Anyway. Pliny has a bit more to say about sage in his Natural History:

Image of sage from the 1545 edition of Leonhart Fuch's New Herbal
Image of sage from the 1545 edition of Leonhart Fuch’s New Herbal

“The plant called by the Greeks “elelisphacos,” or “sphacos,” is a species of wild lentil, lighter than the cultivated one, and with a leaf, smaller, drier, and more odoriferous. There is also another kind of it, of a wilder nature, and possessed of a powerful smell, the other one being milder. It has leaves the shape of a quince, but white and smaller: they are generally boiled with the branches. This plant acts as an emmenagogue and a diuretic: and it affords a remedy for wounds inflicted by the sting-ray, having the property of benumbing the part affected. It is taken in drink with wormwood for dysentery: employed with wine it accelerates the catamenia when retarded, a decoction of it having the effect of arresting them when in excess: the plant, applied by itself, stanches the blood of wounds. It is a cure, too, for the stings of serpents, and a decoction of it in wine allays prurigo of the testes. Our herbalists of the present day take for the “elelisphacos” of the Greeks the salvia  of the Latins, a plant similar in appearance to mint, white and aromatic. Applied externally, it expels the dead fœtus, as also worms which breed in ulcers and in the ears.” (Pliny the Elder, Natural History 22.71)

We can learn a lot of things from this passage: 1) the ancient Greeks called sage ‘elelisphacos’ – which is awesome. I expect you all to march to your spice rack now and change labels accordingly. 2) Ol’ Pliny, like Hippocrates, thinks the herb has drying properties and the ability to purge excess liquid from the body, both as a diuretic and as an emmenagogue (a substance that can stimulate menstruation). 3) SAGE IS A REMEDY FOR STINGRAY VENOM! I love it when things come together like this. Now if only Odysseus had had some sage…

Pliny continues to explain the different ways sage can be used or combined with other substances to cure a variety of illnesses – a common theme to these is the herb’s ability to dry and/or expel things from the body (including worms in the ears *shudder*).

Also. Pliny brings up that another term for the herb is salvia and all I can think of is Miley Cyrus and this:

Thank you, TMZ.
Thank you, TMZ. You do you, Miley.

Step away from the sage, y’all. It’s a different sort of salvia.

Fun fact: Dioscorides began his career as a medic in the Roman military.
Fun fact: Dioscorides began his career as a medic in the Roman military.

Dioscorides, too, in his great herbal (De materia medica) tells the reader about another medical recipe you can make with sage… and wine! I love the ancient love of wine:

“Helelisphacum is made the same way [as the recipe above]. Put eight ounces of the herb into nine gallons of must [young wine] in a ceramic jar. It is good for disorders of the kidneys, bladder and sides, as well as for bloodspitters, coughs, hernias, convulsions, bruises, and impeded menstrual flow.” (Dioscorides, De materia medica 5.71)

This uses of this recipe are pretty clear and, again, we see some of the same themes repeated from Pliny’s passage: sage aiding in drying and expulsion.

So back to my whale.

I have been playing Kacey Musgrave’s new album Pageant Material on repeat lately (you really should give it a listen), which includes a catchy little track called ‘Biscuits‘ – the main idea being that if you mind your own biscuits, your life will be gravy. In my house it was ‘mind your own monkey’, but the sentiment’s the same. And of course, stomach-ruled as I am, a song like this gets me hungry. But. I have struggled for a while to find the perfect biscuit recipe.

Backstory. Every girl from the midwest and/or the south will tell you that her dad makes the best biscuits and gravy (or, in our house, B’s and G’s). All those girls would be wrong as, in reality, my dad makes the best B’s and G’s. And he was kind enough to share this recipe with me. One problem: he’s a canned biscuit man and I live in a land where biscuit means cookie. And I don’t think sausage gravy would be quite as delicious dumped over custard creams.

So for years, I’ve been trying to perfect homemade biscuits. Mostly using a Paula Dean recipe from the Food Network because – despite the PR trouble she’s gotten herself into – a southern woman with an undying love of butter seemed like the best place to start when looking for such a recipe. However, after a few batches of rock hard biscuit pucks, I decided to try something new.

Take that Moby Dick.

As far as the gravy, I pretty much use my pops’ hand-written recipe (I mean, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, amirite?) with one little addition: sage. I find that, especially when you’re eating B’s and G’s for brinner (that glorious time when you have delicious breakfast treats for your nighttime meal) the addition of sage really enhances the flavor of the sausage.

And, to my British readers, don’t knock it ’til ya try it.

JP’s B’s and G’s

This recipe is made for two very hungry people and is easily doubled (or tripled) for extra people or extra hungry people.

For the biscuits (recipe courtesy of Food.com):

  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 6 tablespoons cold butter, cubed
  • 1 cup buttermilk (this can be problematic in the UK, but you can substitute it for 1 cup milk + 1 tablespoon lemon juice)

For the gravy:

  • 1/4 pound ground sausage (if you struggle to find this, just grab some cumberlands and take ’em out of their casings)
  • 3ish tablespoons of fat (this can be sausage grease, vegetable oil, butter or a mix)
  • 3ish tablespoons of flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1ish teaspoon sage
  • salt and pepper
Fluffy. Flakey. Heaven.
Fluffy. Flakey. Heaven.

First things first. You have to make them biscuits. Preheat oven to 425 F and combine dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl. Add in butter cubes and cut in or just dive right in with your hands (my preferred method) and combine until the mixture reaches a sandy or grainy texture. Add in the buttermilk a little at a time and mix until everything is wet. The biscuit dough should be a pretty sticky affair – unlike pie crusts and such. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and press out with floured hands until it is about 3/4 to 1 inch thick. Using a floured 1 1/2-ish cookie cutter, begin cutting out your biscuits. You could also use a glass with a floured rim. Feel free to re-press the dough scraps for extra biscuits, but try to work the dough as little as possible. Pop the biscuits onto a baking tray (I like to have the sides of the biscuits touching each other) and back for 10-12 minutes. They should be golden and beautiful.

Now it’s time for the delicious gravy.

It may be delicious, but sausage gravy sure ain't photogenic.
It may be delicious, but sausage gravy sure ain’t photogenic.

Cook up the ground sausage and set to the side, leaving the delicious sausage grease in the pot. Add a little extra fat if need be, so you have about three tablespoons (I usually reach for the vegetable oil). Add in the flour, salt and pepper and whisk to form a roux. Once the roux is a bit bubbly, add in the milk and continue to whisk while the gravy comes to gentle boil. Remove from the heat and add in the sage and sausage.

Plating up: most people just cut the biscuits in half and pour over the gravy open face. I am not most people. I like to tear up my biscuits and pour the gravy over the pile of biscuit-scraps. Find what works for you and enjoy!

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