Samphire is an edible coastal plant that's seen a surge in popularity on plates in recent years. Mina Holland explores its history and how to use it.
Woody at the root and glowing green and briny at the tip, it makes for delectable salads, a bed of greenery for seasonal fish, or (best of all) simply on its own – with just a knob of butter and some lemon juice as dressing.
What’s in a name?
The name “samphire” has a hint of natural beauty about it, possibly because it resembles the precious stone sapphire so closely. But on closer inspection, the derivation of the curiously named vegetable is no less charming. It was named after Saint Pierre, the patron saint of fisherman, which naturally mutated in “samphire” over time. When I was growing up, I used to pick samphire on Norfolk’s Morston Marshes with my grandmother. Norfolk is still home to the UK’s most prolific samphire growth, where the name has mutated still more into “sampha”.
Shakespeare’s reference to samphire in King Lear is rather less enthusiastic about the sea vegetable than today’s foodies, who can’t wait to get their hands on the stuff:
Half-way down Hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade! (Act IV, Scene VI)
This is likely reference to rock samphire, the browner, less meaty variety found in craggy rock areas. The “dreadful trade” of gathering the samphire alludes to the perilous exercise of picking it on steep cliff lines.
The stuff I collected as a kid, and which usually adorns contemporary plates, is the marsh variety. If you return from a samphire-picking trip without mud splattered thighs and tangled hair, then you probably haven’t been very successful! It thrives on boggy marshland – so expect to get knee-deep in sludge. Softer, juicier and mineral-rich, marsh samphire is probably the variety that earned the vegetable its alternative moniker of “sea asparagus”.
I was recently invited to pick samphire on the Erme estuary, the site of Riverford Organic’s south coast samphire stash. Samphire began to thrive here five years ago, when a wall (possibly built by Napoleonic prisoners) was breached for the final time, “We could have mended it again but with rising sea levels it felt futile,” said Riverford’s founder, Guy Watson. Turns out this was good news for samphire, which has thrived on the recently transformed marshland ever since.
Together with Guy, I spent the morning snipping away at the samphire haven, cutting the stems just short of the root. Tasting it raw, you realise samphire needs very little cooking or extra flavouring. It is naturally very salty and benefits from a crunchy texture. Overcooking it has the same disastrous effects as on asparagus or broccoli. We took our wares to a gas stove and gently blanched them in lemon juice and black pepper. This is my favourite way to eat the stuff, although the Riverford team gave us other ideas…
Cooking with samphire
Back at Riverford’s famous Field Kitchen (until recently headed up by chef Jane Baxter), we ate a salad of samphire, broad beans, cherry tomatoes, spring onions and sourdough croutons – all organically produced nearby in Devon. I created my own version of this back in London, cooking the samphire in lemon juice once more and mixing it with sugar snaps, sun blush tomatoes, red onions and Parmesan.
Samphire is also a naturally delicious accompaniment to fish. Kevin Gratton, head chef at HIX restaurants, says it is particularly good with wild salmon or shellfish, “Steam or blanch your samphire for just 1-2 minutes in boiling water. Then scatter it over wild salmon, include it in a seafood salad, deep-dry in scrumpy batter as a pre-dinner snack, or add with garlic butter to a bowl of steamed cockles or mussels.”
Importantly, samphire is in season right now and you have a window of about three weeks to get hold of the best stuff. As Kevin Gratton went on to tell me, “samphire is fresh and lush in peak season (now!), and it has a delicious salty sea air flavour.” Get it from fishmonger or organic producer like Riverford rather than a supermarket – you want the freshest, most natural stuff available.
A boutique weed
Samphire has clearly gone up in the world since I picked it as a kid, in more ways than one. As sea levels rise, it’s likely we’ll see more of it. So what’s now a highly desirable uncultivated ingredient could fast become a very sustainable wild British vegetable.
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