Many cuisines have had their own ideas of what exactly a green sauce is. Oftentimes, a cuisine has even competing ideas about what a green sauce is.
For centuries in Europe, a green sauce in many instances was a thick sauce based on freshly chopped herbs and thickened with bread soaked in vinegar or verjuice. This type of green sauce was so popular in Europe and England during the Middle Ages that it was sold ready-made in markets.
Most green sauces get their coloration from herbs. Mexican green sauces are an exception, relying on tomatillos or green chiles for their colour.
Roman Green Sauce
Apicius, the Roman cookbook writer, gave a recipe for green sauce for fowl:
Apicius’s Green Sauce for Fowl, c. late 400s
“Pepper, caraway, Indian spikenard, cumin, bay leaves, all kinds of green herbs, dates, honey, vinegar, wine, little broth, and oil.” (Ius viride in avibus. Joseph Dommers Vehling translation. Walter M. Hill, publishers. 1936. Recipe 227, page 147. )
La Varenne’s Green Sauce, France, 1653
“Green-sauce is made thus; Take some green corn [i.e wheat], burn a tost of bread, with vinegar, a little peper and salt, and stamp it all together in a mortar, and strain it through a linen cloath, then serve your sauce under your meat. (La sauce verte se fait ainsi. Prenez du bled verd, faites brûler une rostie de pain avec du vinaigre, un peu de poivre & de sel, & pilez le tout ensemble dans un mortier, & le pilez le tout ensemble dans un mortier, & le passez dans un linge, puis servez votre sauce sous vos viandes.”) — François Pierre de La Varenne, Le vrai cuisinier françois. 1721 edition, page 70.
English Green Sauces
The most popular English green sauce now is of course “mint sauce”, though it is never referred to as “green sauce.” There have, though, been sauces known in England as Green Sauce from the Middle Ages right up until the early 1800s, when they disappeared to be replaced by mint sauce.
Green Sauce in The Forme of Cury, c1390
“VERDE SAWSE. XX.VII. Take parsel. mynt. garlek. a litul serpell and sawge, a litul canel. gyngur. piper. wyne. brede. vynegur & salt grynde it smal with safroun & messe it forth.”
Hannah Glasse’s Green Sauce, 1784
“Green Sauce …. Is made thus: take half a pint of the juice of sorrel, if no sorrel, spinach juice: have ready a cullis of veal broth, about half a pint, some sugar, the juice of an orange or lemon; boil it up for five or six minutes, then put your sorrel juice in, and just boil it up. Be careful to keep stirring it all the time, or it will curdle; then put it in your boat.” — Hannah Glasse. The Art of Cookery. 1784
B. Clermont’s Green Sauces, 1812
“Sauce Verte / Green Sauce. Take chervil, parsley, Tarragon, and burnet; wash all well; squeeze out the water, and pound them very fine; then put it on the fire with good consomme; sift it in a stamine with expression, and add butter rolled in flour, pepper and salt; simmer it without boiling.” — B. Clermont. The Professed Cook. 1812.
“Sauce Verte d’une autre Facon/ Green Sauce of another Kind. Scald a handful of spinach for half an hour, with parsley and tops of green shallots; then take all out, squeeze it well, and pound it very fine; put into a stew-pan a few mushrooms, sliced onions, two cloves of garlick, two or three Tarragon leaves, one of laurel, a little basil, two cloves, a little butter, two spoonsful of cullis, and as much white wine; boil it a moment, then add your green sauce, and sift it in a stamine; add pepper and salt, and simmer it without boiling.” — B. Clermont. The Professed Cook. 1812.
Dr William Kitchiner’s Green Sauce, 1845
“Green Mint Sauce. Wash half a handful of nice young fresh-gathered Green Mint, (to this add one-third the quantity of Parsley,) pick the leaves from the stalks, mince them very fine, and put them into a sauceboat, with a teaspoonful of moist Sugar, and four tablespoonsful of Vinegar. Obs. This is the usual accompaniment to Hot Lamb and an equally agreeable relish to Cold Lamb.” — Dr William Kitchiner. The Cook’s Oracle. 1845
Italian Versions of Green Sauce
In Italian cooking, salsa verde is a cold (room temperature sauce) made from a mixture of coarsely chopped parsley, capers, onion, garlic and anchovies, mixed with vinegar and olive oil, and sometimes some mustard.
In some variations, cubes of bread are first soaked in the vinegar, and then mixed, making for a “creamier” sauce.
Some people call Gremolata, the green garnish made from chopped parsley, a green sauce, but it has no liquid in it.
German Green Sauce
In German, this is called “Grüne Soße” or “Frankfurter Grüne Soße” or “Grie Soβ” in the dialect of Frankfurt. It is made from mashed cooked egg yolks, oil, quark cheese or sour cream or a mixture of both, and seven fresh herbs, finely chopped, in equal quantity: borage, chervil, chives, cress, parsley, salad burnet and sorrel. At green grocers, you can buy packages labelled “Grüne Soße” of the mixed fresh green herbs. Variations in the herbs can be made depending on season. The sauce is served cold or room temperature. In the Hesse region of Germany, the sauce is traditionally served on Maundy Thursday, leading to the day being called “Gründonnerstag” (green Thursday.)
A thin sauce made of water, olive oil and vinegar whose dominant ingredient is chopped fresh parsley. See separate entry.
Mexican Versions of Green Sauce
In Mexican cooking, there are many green sauces (“salsa verde.”) They can be cooked or uncooked, and are usually based on tomatillos or green chile which give the sauces their green colour. See separate entry.
Odile Redon, Françoise Sabban, Silvano Serventi, and Patricia Glee Smith. The Medieval Kitchen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2000. Pages 169 to 170.