If you are posh, you’ll pay masses for a few strands of it next to your sea bass. You’ll be in an upmarket restaurant, miles from the sea and you’ll pronounce it ‘Sam-fiire’. If you’re a little less well-heeled, you’ll buy a big carrier bag of it from the fishmonger, or even better get it for free at the coast. Then you’ll eat a whole plate of it, unceremoniously sucking it off the stalks. You’re more likely to call it ‘Sam-fer’.
However you eat your marsh samphire, it is truly fabulous stuff. Its fleshy, tubular leaves are the vivid green of a freshly cut lawn and its taste is salty and succulent. Known as ‘sea-asparagus’, it makes a wonderful accompaniment for fish or seafood.
It is packed full of vitamins too, and was once used to treat scurvy. Apparently, it also works wonders for flatulence.
Samphire grows on the salt marshes and mudflats around Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex’s coastline, and its short season is now starting.
Foraging for your own samphire is fun, but comes with a few safety guidelines. If you are looking for it on salt marshes or mudflats, then be careful not to roam too far from a path. The mud can be very sticky; welly boot loss is practically inevitable and some areas are deep, so be cautious. Also make sure you are aware of the tides – dinner is not worth drowning for!
To pick it, make sure you just pinch or snip off the tops of the plants, leaving the gritty, fibrous stems in the ground to regrow. This means it survives for next time and also can continue to provide food for wildlife, such as waterfowl.
Do take a moment to survey the mudflat around you. It can seem bleak and uninhabited, but it is crammed with wildlife. Even that gloopy mud that you just lost your flip-flop in is full of little creatures providing essential protein to wading birds.
If you really love the green stuff, you could consider growing it at home. Yes, this is possible however far inland you live. You simply water the plant with a saline solution, to recreate the salty sea – jaunty sailor singing is optional.
My favourite way of eating samphire is to simply boil the cleaned plant in plenty of unsalted water, until tender – which takes about four or five minutes. Then I pile it in a plate and slather with unsalted butter and a splash of lemon or malt vinegar. Somewhat surprisingly, children will go nuts for the stuff (mine prefer just butter on theirs).
Eating it is far from elegant as you slurp the cooked samphire off the plant leaving a tough strand behind and getting butter down your chin. Be warned, samphire is not perfect for a romantic first date!
Samphire is a real flavour of wild East Anglia and around now is the time to make the most of it. Serve it up with a beautiful Cromer crab and it doesn’t matter if you are posh or not, you will be dining like royalty.