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Fresh Samphire

Seasonal Eating: Soon time for Samphire

I am blessed to have a Fishmonger who turns up weekly at the local market. During the season, he includes a handful of emerald green samphires for free. In Britain, Samphire grows naturally in muddy salt-water marshes and estuaries around the coast. It’s a seasonal delicacy, at its best from May onwards until September. Norfolk and North Wales are perfect places to find it. I’ve eaten it in Spain, France and the Netherlands too.

But what is Samphire? Strictly, this is Marsh Samphire (Salicornia europaea), sometimes known as glasswort because it was essential to medieval glassmaking. Samphire is a corruption of the French “Saint Pierre” and is mentioned in Shakespeare’s King Lear (Act 4, Scene 6).

It’s not seaweed. Visually, it looks like a cross between a succulent cactus and a thinly stemmed asparagus. It doesn’t look edible. When eaten, it has a nice, crunchy green bite and a salty, iodine-like tang redolent of the sea. There’s an asparagus-like delicacy to it as well. Indeed, it was once known as poor man’s asparagus.

These days, it’s become an über-trendy veggie offered at ridiculous prices in top “fine dining” restaurants. But given that Samphire grows around the UK coast, you can forage for free at the muddy low tide. Just cut the green tops off with scissors and leave the root alone so it can regenerate. Hard work, so your first stop should be an excellent fishmonger! I’ve bought it from Farmers’ Markets, too, and have even seen it occasionally sold in supermarkets (do ensure it’s British) and by Riverford Organics.

It’ll keep for up to five days in a fridge, but ideally, eat it as fresh as possible. If you’re foraging, avoid any sites designated as SSSI (Sites of Special Scientific Interest), which are protected places.

Wash it under running water to remove grit, mud, sand, and any excess salt. Check for roots and woody stems, pinch them off, and discard them. All it takes to cook it is to boil or steam it for 3-4 minutes until tender. Serve with hollandaise sauce or vinaigrette á la asparagus. Or just douse it in vinegar! Alternatively, add it to pasta with a few parmesan shavings or batter and deep-fry it. Of course, fish is the general partner for Samphire.

Plenty of recipes are available, including pickling. Pickling is really best for the unrelated Rock Samphire, which grows on cliffs. Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum) is an entirely different species with a medicinal taste and is rather more dangerous to forage!

Here’s an easy recipe for Marsh Samphire:

Samphire with Shallots and Lardons

A couple of handfuls of Samphire will feed four, so there is no need to worry unduly about exact measurements. Don’t add salt!

Fry some bacon lardons until just brown in a large frying pan. Then, remove them for later. Now chop some shallots (or an onion will do). Sweat them in the oil left from the lardons until soft. Add the Samphire and toss for 2-3 minutes until tender but with some bite retained. Add plenty of black pepper, and finally, combine with the lardons.

As a vegetarian variation, omit the lardons and use clarified butter and a few capers and croutons. Or add broad beans.

Serve immediately with a robust but crisp white wine like a Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc or an English Bacchus.

Do seek it out—it’s a great example of local cuisine from these islands.

More seasonal eating can be found here.

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