At Christmas time in Trinidad, this is a common sight. Sorrel, which is a member of the hibiscus family (Hibiscus sabdariffa), is tradionally used to make one of Trinidad and Tobago's most beloved national Christmas drinks. The population takes its cue from signs such as the sorrel-laden vans that appear on the side of the highways selling their fare, as a signal that the season is officially open. The late appearance of sorrel can have a significant impact on the general Christmass-y feeling that pervades the both islands. The fleshy sepals are peeled away from the green base and soaked to "draw' the flavor. Sorrel has an astringent flavor that is quite unique. Almost cranberry like. Clove, cinnamon and ginger can all be added to improve the flavor.
So how exactly do you go from the aesthetic beauty of a truck load of fat magenta sepals to the clear, crimson drink that is synonymous with the season?
Everyone's recipe is different, but you must start with at least five pounds of sorrel. It will shrink, don't worry. Choose crisp, fresh sorrel that snaps easily.
When you arrive home, settle down with some good company or an excellent Christmas movie to get you in the mood or, a completely fool proof way, put some Daisy Voisin on the Ipod.
Sit with two large bowls. Start peeling your sepals away from their green seed. Put the seeds in one bowl and your sepals in another. Have fun and feel very virtuous and Christmass-y for about 10 minutes.After which time, expect to get irritated that no one told you that the prickly, little fuzz on each sepal is very itchy and peeling sorrel is very time consuming. Make a mental note to self not to get taken by the pretty vans next year and promise to buy the ready made Orchard packs.However, never be tempted to boil the whole sorrel, the green seed will dramatically change the flavor and gives it an almost musky undertone. Persist, it will be worth it.
When all the sepals have been peeled away, wash carefully and place in large pot and bring to the boil. Add a handful of fresh cloves, 2-3 pieces of cinnamon bark, 1 smashed one inch piece of ginger root. Turn off heat and leave in pot overnight to allow flavor to steep. The next morning, most off the color will have leeched from the sorrel and the liquid should be lovely and crimson. Strain and sweeten with white sugar to taste. You will be amazed at the amount of sugar that it takes to sweeten sorrel. It's quite alarming actually. It is also possible to make a simple syrup and sweeten to taste with that, it does mix easily. When I bottle my sorrel, I leave my cloves in but remove the cinnamon and ginger by straining the whole batch. Some people add bay leaf or orange peel and use brown sugar. Either sugar is fine but I personally find that brown sugar changes the clarity of the final drink. I will not even give an estimate of the amount of sugar that you will need, but suffice to say that you can safely start with a cup and go from there. Bottle, refrigerate and enjoy.