This summer I spent some time back in Northern England, where I come from. I was traveling with my husband’s family, and was keen to show them that British food isn’t all warm beer and cold gravy.
We managed to find a very nice seafood restaurant. It was artfully constructed out of an upturned boat on the seashore, achingly fashionable, with prices to match. The fish was fresh and local, and home-made mayonnaise was served in mason jars.
My father, however, was unimpressed. He prefers restaurants to have doors, not a strong north-easterly blowing through them, and found the boat grim and Dickensian. He likes carrots and peas, but the sea bass came with something vaguely called “sea vegetables”.
When the sea vegetables arrived he couldn’t believe his eyes. “It’s sampkin!” he cried “I haven’t seen that since I was a boy!”
He told us how, in the times after the war, when money was tight, the families who lived on the coast would forage for sampkin in the marshlands. With the cockles and fluke that could be found in the mud at low tide, you could nourish a family through hard times, and what’s more, it was delicious.
“Didn’t matter how fussy we were as kids, everyone likes sampkin,” he said.
We tried the sea vegetables. They were good, but drenched in vinegar, and to be honest, a bit stringy. The next day, I saw them for sale in the local upmarket supermarket. I could see why the prices in the restaurant had been so eye-watering. The label called them “samphire” and they cost more than five heads of broccoli did. I asked my father if he wanted to buy some, for old time’s sake, and he looked at me as if I was mad.
That evening, we were down by the coastal wall. The tide in the estuary was out, and the boats were marooned, the river now just a ribbon reflecting the sunset. “Look, see, there’s loads of it here to be had for nothing.” He said “No one bothers to get it these days.”
There was a little tuft of samphire at his feet, spreading maybe a foot across. Then I noticed another, and another. In fact, the whole of the estuary, as far as the river in the distance, was made up of patches of samphire. No one was picking it, or seemed to notice that is was the same stuff they sold in the expensive restaurant just down the coast.
The next morning we came back and gathered enough for lunch for us and my husband’s family. My dad told me to collect only the medium-sized shoots, leaving the big and stringy ones behind.
You should take only the green, plump tips of the plant, cutting at the join between the fleshy, juicy vegetable, and the thin woody stalk.
However, when it came to how to cook samphire, my father had no idea. We had picked enough to experiment, and after a bit of testing I found that the best way is to boil quickly, for about four minutes in plenty of well-salted water. Serve immediately as it soon begins to lose the vibrancy of its colour. If you like, put a little knob of butter on top, but I find the traditional accompaniment of vinegar overwhelms the delicate, salty flavour.
The plant naturally contains plenty of salt, as it grows only on tidal marshes, and extracts the salt from the ground it grows on. When cooking the samphire, it is necessary to put plenty of salt in the water, or the natural salt in the plant will leach out through the process of osmosis, as middle school biology taught us.
It can also be found, very rarely, growing inland, on areas which are the site of prehistoric salt marshes, and still contain the necessary mineral deposits. If you do find some growing like this, do not pick them, they are rare and precious, and probably protected by law.
If, however, you find some growing on the wetlands which are its usual habitat, pick away. The plant colonises very quickly, although the best time to find it is in late summer, after which the shoots become too woody.
To meet the growing demand for this delicious vegetable, enterprising farmers have taken to growing samphire in artificial conditions, under glass, and scientifically extending the harvest season, which to me feels like they are somehow completely missing the point. And if you compared the huge fronds we ate at the restaurant, each one with a tough string running through the core, with the delicate shoots we picked ourselves, you would agree it was worth the effort.
The saving was also considerable. To feed six people samphire bought from a shop would have pushed the meal into the ambassadorial price range, but all it cost us was a little time, and knowledge of the tides.
Samphire is the accepted name for the plant Crithmum Mairitinum, although along the banks of the River Dee where my grandmothers and great-grandmothers foraged for it, it was always known as sampkin. It is also sometimes known as glasswort, as it used to be used in the glassmaking industry. It is known in France as salicorn, or “horn of salt”. It is also, confusingly, sometimes called Sea Asparagus.
I would love to hear if any readers in other parts of the world have heard of this wonderful vegetable. My search turned up no information about samphire in North America, but maybe Mother Earth News readers have local knowledge of a similar plant?
Hannah Wernet grew up self-sufficiently on a sheep farm in Wales. When she was 20, she moved to Austria where she works as a teacher and owns a small expat bar. She dreams of one day returning to a self-sufficient life in the French countryside. Read all of Hannah's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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