Since I was first allowed into the kitchen at four years old, I've been obsessed with sorrel. Not the leafy, spinach-like herb, but rather the species of hibiscus used to make the Jamaican Christmas drink of the same name, called bissap in parts of West Africa and flor de Jamaica in Latin America. At Christmastime, I'd stand on a step stool and watch as my mother would make what seemed to be cauldrons upon cauldrons of sorrel, redolent with ginger, cloves, dried orange peel, and pimento (allspice berries). That was the only time of year when we'd buy white sugar, to sweeten the sorrel, since brown sugar sometimes imparts a molasses flavor that can detract from sorrel's subtle notes. I wasn't allowed to have soda as a child, so this was my annual sugary beverage treat. As I got older, I was permitted to partake in batches that had been allowed to ferment, and some that had been laced with overproof rum.
Enid Donaldson was one of the doyennes of Jamaican cuisine, and every Jamaican chef of note has a copy of her cookbook, The Real Taste of Jamaica. In the first edition, she says of sorrel: "No Jamaican Christmas is complete without bottles of the red drink brewed with rum and ginger." What is fascinating is that either dried or fresh sorrel can be used to make the drink, though these yield different intensities and top notes. Dried sorrel produces a cranberry-red punch that is herbaceous and full of flavor; think of it as a strong hibiscus iced tea. Fresh sorrel is mouth-puckeringly tart, delicately perfumed, and ideal for fermenting. Both forms create a refreshing drink.