Seasonal Eating: Soon time for Samphire
I consider myself blessed to have a Fishmonger that turns up every week at the local market. When in the season, he includes a couple of handfuls of emerald green samphire 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 particularly good places to find it. In Europe, I’ve eaten it in Spain, France and the Netherlands.
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 gets 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 thinly stemmed asparagus. It’s perhaps not obviously edible. When eaten it has a nice green crunchy 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 a 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 and by Riverford Organics.
It’ll keep for up to five days in a fridge but ideally, eat when as fresh as possible. If you’re foraging just avoid any sites designated as an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), which are protected places.
Wash it under running water to get rid of grit, mud, sand and any excess salt. Check for any remaining roots and woody stems and just pinch them off and discard. All it takes to cook it is to boil, or preferably steam it for 3-4 minutes until just tender. Serve with hollandaise sauce or vinaigrette á la asparagus. Or just douse in Sarson’s vinegar! Alternatively, add it to pasta with a few parmesan shavings, or batter and deep-fry them. The general partner for Samphire is of course fish.
There are plenty of recipes available, including pickling. Pickling is really for the unrelated Rock Samphire which grows on cliffs. Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum), is an entirely different species and has 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, 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. Now 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 – a great example of local cuisine from these isles. I had my first 2017 portion in Cornwall recently!