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An Essay on Samphire / The Plant

Considering the brilliant appeal of the edible, salt-tolerant succulent (2014)




She has many names, but one of the best has to be 'mermaid’s kiss', an affectionate nickname and one that describes her perfectly. Others may know her as sea bean, sea pickle, crow's foot greens (her least favourite), marsh grass, beach asparagus, glasswort. In Latin, she is part of the salicornia genus. The Welsh know her as sampkin and in East Anglia, she is sampha. For this exercise, let us go with 'samphire'. The name is derived from sampiere, a corruption of the French Saint-Pierre – an early accolade was being chosen as the patron saint of fisherman, because of its favoured natural habitat along the sea coast.

Despite her early ‘Pierre’, Samphire is most definitely female. She is gentle; motherly; a wonderful companion. She is good for you – particularly expert in dealing with flatulence, digestion and kidney complaints. She carries flowers.

Samphire is a satisfying name – as a word it is clean, with its two syllables. Sam-phire. ‘C’ is the most popular letter for vegetable names and ’s’ comes a close second. In the S club, samphire is in good company. Spinach, swede, squash and shallots all have distinct appeal.

It would be tempting to begin with appearance, but her flavour is so striking that it must be addressed first. Let us go back to that ‘mermaid’s kiss’. Soft, salty, delicious. Unusual. Crisp, fresh. There are two defining features when it comes to the taste of samphire. Her saltiness comes from her habitat – she drinks the sea water through her roots. She has a similar salty hit to that of an oyster – think of that moment when the delicate mollusk slips into ones mouth. A taste of the sea, so they say. And samphire has the same effect, instantly transporting one to the coast. When did a swede last do that?

Second to her salt appeal is her satisfying crunch, best achieved in her early days. Sometimes, one can come across a silica thread, not unlike fish bones. Growing through the centre of the stalk, their purpose is to strengthen the plant. In these situations, suck the samphire’s meaty flesh and leave the skeletons.

Samphire is most at home on marshy shallows and muddy, sandy flats, often around estuaries and tidal creeks. She colonises wetland areas rich in mineral and trace elements. Although, she has been known to flourish away from the sea, in garden pots created by her biggest admirers. Yet in this environment, she certainly misses the natural salty drink that helps her thrive and flourish.

She comes in two guises: rock samphire and marsh samphire, the latter is the one most will be familiar with. Rock samphire, or crithmum maritimum is a rare plant and belongs to the umbelliferae family, related to parsley and fennel. She hails from the Mediterranean and grows on rock and shingle along the coast and is characterised by her delicate white flowers. The main difference between rock and marsh is the intensely aromatic flavour of rock. Aficionados swear by the superior flavour, but it's hard to find, and marsh with its characteristic saltiness makes a fine alternative.

So let us focus on marsh, a wonderful type. She is related to the beet family. On appearance, she looks prehistoric, rich in history. She is wise and knowing. She has no leaves, just a sprawling, succulent series of jointed, horizontal fingers. The fingers reach for sunlight whilst her feet are bathed in sand and salt water. She's not unlike a miniature cactus, though without the spikes, or a mini fir tree. She doesn't look like she is meant to be eaten, more of a luscious plant, gracing the landscape with her beauty. She boasts a vibrant green colour – she sometimes has reddish stalks but these are tougher. The fresh green colour indicates tenderness. She is barely a foot tall, her stems between six and nine inches long.

Foraging is a wonderful word and one that can be associated with samphire. As long as laws permit, samphire can be foraged in moderation. Although the dangers of foraging on cliff edges should be considered. "Half-way down hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!" Shakespeare wrote in act IV Scene VI of King Lear, making reference to those who had been foraging on the White Cliffs of Dover. The salt flats of Normandy are perhaps the most enjoyable: Mont Saint-Michel in the distance, and surrounding beaches boasting rich historical tales. Just be sure to check the tide times.

Samphire plants are annuals and she begins to grow in the late autumn and vegetates through the winter. Rock has an earlier season than marsh samphire, and is in season during spring, rather than summer. Marsh is in her prime July through to August, occasionally September. After this, she has too many of those aforementioned skeletons inside her stem. In her prime for only a couple of months means she has an elusive charm.

An experienced forager will know never to walk through a bed of samphire; the footsteps will break her delicate fronds. Always forage around the edges. Look for green, fresh looking plants with no signs of drooping. Pinch out and snip off her tops�leaving the more fibrous stems in the ground. She is delicious raw.

So now for her preparation. She won't stay fresh for long – tightly wrap in a damp paper towel and refrigerate for no more than three days (samphire freezes well, too). Wash and rinse thoroughly to remove any traces of grit and sand. If one finds the batch too salty, soak the fronds in cold water for an hour. Samphire is best served simply. Bring to the boil a large pan of fresh water, drop in the samphire and cook for three to four minutes (any longer and she will become floppy and unsatisfying). Serve with a squeeze of lemon and a knob of butter. A smattering of cracked black pepper and vinegar if one likes. Samphire is happiest with fish (particularly steamed bass, scallops, oysters, and Mackerel); eggs; tender spring lamb, new potatoes or a salad, especially with broad beans.

Be good to her and she will reward you well.

The original article featured in Issue 7 of The Plant, published in December 2014.