Tag Archives: forage

Pickleweed

“To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of year, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.”  Rachel Carson

Sunrising over the Thames estuary

Sunrise over the Thames Estuary

Sunrise is the best time. The dog can wander on the muddy foreshore and I can listen to the Oyster Catchers calling overhead and perhaps catch a glimpse of a Marsh Harrier. Once we reach the marshes Bear the Blind Husky has to be on a lead otherwise he’d fall in a drainage ditch and have to be hauled out by the scruff of his neck, a great indignity. He exhibits his usual sangfroid at the embarrassment of the lead.  I can see him thinking, “I’m a Bear…”

Bear the Husky walking along the muddy shoreline

Bear-Boys

Fifty or so miles from Deptford are the North Kent marshes. A world apart: flat, quiet, muddy, and teeming with life.  In order to avoid some of the human life I’ve arrived early, very early. To get to the marshes I have to walk across a nudist beach with the dog; me in my fire brigade issue steel toe-capped rubber boots and white 501s, carrying plastic bags and scissors; the blind Husky wandering here and there. The Husky’s name is Bear, because he’s big, snow-white, cool and bear-like. We call him ‘Bear-Boys’, because he’s a boy. Though he’s blind he manages very well, and wanders along at his own pace behind, or in front, so long as there aren’t any distractions. Every so often his front half disappears down a rabbit hole, emerging covered in sand.  In few hours the sun will be high in the sky and the beach will be crowded with naked people, most of them men, striding up and down in perfectly bronzed and shaved nakedness, the scent of sun oil hanging heavily in the air.  The Husky finds this very distracting, which causes me to have to call him back: “Bear-Boys! Come here!” And a dozen naked men look at me indignantly.

The North Kent Marshes

The North Kent Marshes, Isle of Harty

I’ve come here for the Samphire, I don’t know what it is, but Samphire gathering is an uplifting experience. There’s something about kneeling in the mud and enjoying the smell of the just-flowering sea lavender, the wetland grasses, and the water, while tiny crabs skitter this way and that in the ditches, and the birds wheel and hover above you. And everything is green, every shade of green from the pale bluey-grey green of the Sea Purslane, to the vivid green of the Samphire and on to the deep green of the grasses, here and there the green emphasised by the brilliant purple of the Sea Lavender.

Crab in a drainage ditch on Harty Marshes, Kent, England.

You’re Never Alone in a Ditch, Somebody is Always Watching.

Perhaps it’s some sort of memory, something primeval to do with our collective unconscious memory.  Jung said we all have this inherited collective unconscious, call it instinct if you like. He said the sea represented our unconscious mind, and the shore our conscious mind. The constantly changing tideline he said, was the fine line we have to balance. But a salt marsh is a blurs these distinctions and stirs deep hidden feelings.

Sea Lavender growing on North Kent marshes at Harty

Sea Lavender

Samphire looks like something from ‘Jurassic Park’ and is one of our oldest indigenous plants. About 15cm – 30cm fully grown, with little branches and even tinier leaves. The leaves are more like scales, so it appears smooth and succulent. It is quite difficult to spot unless you come across a large group.

Marsh Samphire, or, Glasswort

Marsh Samphire

For nearly three weeks I’ve eaten samphire every day either raw or steamed, and now I want to try pickling it.  ‘Samphire’ is a corruption of sampier which in turn came from herbe de Saint Pierre, St Peter being the patron saint of fishermen, but it is also known as glasswort, pickleweed, sea bean, in North Wales sampkin, and in Norfolk ‘samfer’.  Samuel Pepys loved Samphire, buying it by the barrel, but his was Rock Samphire, a different plant altogether. Rock Samphire grows on rocks and cliff faces, and was sold pickled on the streets of London to the cries of “cres’ marine!” and, “I ha’ rock samphier!”  The gathering of Rock Samphire was done on an industrial scale, so much so that the plant almost disappeared in the 19th Century. It was famously dangerous work, small children were dangled upside-down by ropes tied to their ankles, women made up the majority of the workforce clambering up and down steep cliffs using a crooked stick to collect the samphire.

Shakespeare wasn’t impressed, describing a scene near Dover involving a dangling child, he wrote in ‘King Lear’:

How fearful and dizzy ’tis to cast one’s eyes so low.
The crows and coughs that wing the midway air show scarce so gross as beetles.

Half-way down hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade!

Robert Turner, doctor and translator

Robert Turner, from the Wellcome Library

Rock Samphire has an unpleasant smell which disappears when it is pickled and becomes a very tasty sauce: ‘of all the sawces (which are very many) there is none so pleasant, none so familiar and agreeable to Man’s body as samphire,’ wrote a contemporary of Pepys.  Robert Turner in 1664 wrote of samphire gathering on the cliffs of the Isle of Wight that it was ‘incredibly dangerous … yet many adventure it, though they buy their sauce with the price of their lives’.  Two hundred years later Victorian painters and illustrators found the poverty and desperation of rock samphire gathers a bucolic and romantic subject, far removed from the reality.

Cover of The Graphic depicting a samphire gatherer

The Famous Victorian Image of a Samphire Gatherer by W. Murray for the cover of ‘The Graphic’ magazine.

Nowadays you can buy Samphire all year round in fishmongers,  imported from Israel or Holland. I’m a bit strict about some things, and so only eat Samphire in season, and Samphire I’ve gathered myself.  The season runs roughly from June to the end of August, depending on the weather. This year is unusual, the samphire on my marsh only appearing mid July. There is more of it this year, but most of it has ‘bolted’, grown too fast into a single skinny stem, instead of slowly growing and branching into plump juicy wonderfulness. And some is already beginning to turn red, the colour of Autumn. Americans call it ‘Swampfire’, for the way the marshes become a blaze of red in the Fall. Samphire tastes crisply salty, and grows alongside another edible salt marsh plant, Sea Purslane. You can buy ordinary organic Purslane from Perry Court Farm Organics at Brockley Market, and while you’re there you can buy Samphire from Dorset at the Hand-Picked Shellfish Co. stall.

Sea Purslane growing on the marshes

Sea Purslane

I snack on Sea Purslane walking along to the Samphire.  Purslane is a greyish green whereas Samphire is a vivid bright green, unless it is covered in dried mud!  We sometimes add Sea Purslane to salads, pushing the boat out this week and mixing Perry Court Farm’s organic Purslane (£1.20 a bag) with foraged Sea Purslane, adding slices of toasted cheese, mint, and slivers of beetroot and carrot.

Salad of Sea Purslane and Organic Purslane

Salad of Sea Purslane and Organic Purslane

But the Samphire is the main attraction for me, I hope that if I pickle enough I’ll be eating it at Christmas. If you venture out onto the marshes looking for Samphire you’ll need scissors and a bag, and wellies of course. Don’t confuse it with Golden Samphire which confusingly grows alongside. That has bright yellow flowers and short feathery leaves.

Marsh Samphire growing on Harty Marshes

Marsh Samphire, or Glasswort

Once you are sure, don’t bother with plants that are beginning to turn red, pick the tallest and plumpest you can find and snip off the top 100mm (4″). If you cut further down you’ll encounter the woody inner stem which holds the plant erect. Never pull it up by its roots. For a salad or for steaming you’ll need a couple of handfuls. To pickle you’ll need considerably more, hopefully you’ll find a bed of Samphire like this:

Marsh Samphire

Marsh Samphire

I collected what I thought would be enough for the two storage jars I’d bought back in Deptford, roused the sleepy Husky, who was covered in mud (but so was I) and headed back to my shack. I sorted the cuttings, removing any woody bits and stray grass, then snipped it slightly shorter, to about 50mm – 75mm. This was the most time-consuming part of the process, because each stem had to be inspected separately. Next I soaked the Samphire in a few changes of clean water to remove the mud and dust, and then weighed it. I had 600g to pickle, less than I’d hoped, just enough to fill one 3 litre storage jar.

Cleaning Samphire Before Pickling

Cleaned Samphire Ready For Pickling

My recipe is inspired by Patience Gray in her book “Honey From A Weed”. Patience believed that Rock and Marsh Samphire were so similar that they could be treated the same way. She suggested eating Samphire raw with a little wine vinegar, as an appetiser, or pickled in white wine vinegar with thyme and oregano, and maybe salted anchovies. There are many ways to pickle Samphire, but I’m following Patience Gray and Henry V: ‘Thus may we gather honey from the weed And make a moral of the devil himself’.

Pickled Samphire

Pickled Samphire

Pickled Samphire

Preparation time: impossible to say, but apart from gathering the Samphire, sorting and cleaning is the most time-consuming part.

Cooking time: 5 minutes.

I started with a 3 litre storage jar, sterilised with boiling water and allowed to dry naturally.

Ingredients:

600g samphire washed and trimmed into 50mm – 75mm pieces

3 bottles (3 x 350ml) white wine vinegar

1 tbsp soft brown sugar

4 tsp peppercorns

1 tsp mustard seeds

1 tsp dried Thyme

1 tsp dried Oregano

Method:

Leaving the Samphire to one side, mix the rest of the ingredients together in a saucepan and heat, bringing to the boil. Let it boil for a minute, then allow to cool for a while. It doesn’t have to cool completely.

Pack the Samphire into the sterilised jar. Pack it tightly, then pour in the pickling liquid, leaving a 1cm gap at the top.

Seal the lid and…that’s it!

My plan is to serve it with mutton or lamb, or anything really. And I’m planning to make some more…

©2012 David Porter.

Ready for the next time

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Kerb Appeal

Walking the dog around the streets of SE8 and SE4 I can’t ignore the huge amount of fruit falling onto the pavements, unwanted and unloved.

Now it’s damsons and crab apples and soon there’ll be pears and apples, figs and nuts of various kinds.  Not forgetting the blackberries which are early this year, our own Oregon Thornless isn’t quite ready but it looks as if it’ll be a bumper year in our front garden which becomes a rendezvous point for the local mums and toddlers.

It’s a bit of an obsession, finding free fruit. Everywhere I go I take old carrier bags, and if I’m in the car there’s always a coolbox alongside the Wonder Lurcher . For this recipe I gathered 5 lb (2.3 kg) of damsons from the road and pavement just 200 yards from my house, it took 5 minutes and I was studiously ignored by passers-by.

The tree is old grey and twisted, and this year heavy with fruit. I did the polite thing and knocked and asked if I could have some, but was told curtly that I could only have the windfalls in the street. Oh well, I know how she feels. Our blackberry trails along our railings at the front of our house, there’s always more fruit on the pavement side, its the sunnier side, and passers-by help themselves, which is nice I think. Though sometimes we arrive home to find people trampling around our front garden. Last year a woman knocked at our door on her way home from the Hillyfields farmers’ market. She was carrying apples in her pulled-up skirt,  a bit eccentric I thought.  Three children peered at me from behind her skirt, “I’m going to make an apple pie,” she beamed, “would you mind if I picked a few blackberries to put in the pie?” Of course not I said, but then a few minutes later I glanced out the window and saw her and the children frantically stripping the bush, grabbing handfuls of squashed fruit till her carrier bag looked like an over-stuffed pillow. “So that’s why she’s carrying the apples in her skirt,” sighed Clarissa.

About 95% of our fruit is imported, 71% of our apples come from abroad, surely this is wrong on so many levels. For nearly 500 years we were a great fruit-growing nation, then suddenly we’re not anymore. The big food retailers strive to remove risk when stocking fruit, they do this by only stocking fruit that isn’t ripe. They say that it will ripen in the fruit bowl at home. They say this is what the consumer wants because he or she only wants to shop once a week so it needs to keep for a week. The trouble is, as I’m sure you know, it usually goes straight from unripe to rotten, and consumers have forgotten what really ripe fruit tastes like, or looks like. Supermarket fruit has a good ‘shelf life’, which may be good for the shelf but isn’t good for the fruit.

In Sheffield Stephen Watts left school after A levels and didn’t know what to do, so to fill his time he started growing vegetables on an allotment. He spent three years learning about horticulture, biodynamics, and organic farming.

In 2005 he cycled around Sheffield mapping old and neglected fruit trees he found in back gardens and on waste ground, finding apples, pears, plums, figs, cherries, hazelnuts, sweet chestnuts and quince.  By happy coincidence Anne-Marie Culhane, a community artist, arrived in Sheffield in 2007, and she too cycled around noticing the old fruit trees, “The whole city is full of fruit,” she thought, “and loads of it is going to waste.”

Getting together with Stephen they founded the ‘Abundance‘ Project.  Says Stephen, “I knew where the trees were and how and when to harvest them, and Anne-Marie knew how to make it into a project, how to get funding and get people on board. It wouldn’t have happened without the two of us.”  Starting with half a dozen volunteers they scoured the city, knocking on doors. “It changed my life,” said Stephen, simply.

Now they’ve had a visit from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, who helped pick and juice for ‘River Cottage‘,  and Stephen travels around encouraging  other towns to follow their example. The Abundance idea has spread to Manchester, Reading, Bristol, Oxford, Brighton, and Plymouth so far.

They begin harvesting in August and carry on till October, distributing the fruit, fresh or made into jams, pickles, cider and juices around Sheffield for free. About half the fruit is pressed for juice which can be frozen, and the waste is composted. Abundance ticks all the boxes, food miles, carbon footprint, healthy eating, and community involvement. In South East London we have several Transition Town groups in New Cross, Brockley, Lewisham etc., and Project Dirt in Deptford’s Utrophia. I might be wrong, but these groups seem to be more about growing food than gathering what is already there and going to waste.

Not everyone likes damsons and their tart  grown-up taste, but the thing about damsons that really fascinates me is that they haven’t been changed by breeding, the damson you taste today will taste the same as the damson that St Paul might have eaten on the road to Damascus. Damson is a shortened form of Damascene, the plum of Damascus.

Here’s a really simple damson pickle recipe, I’m going to put the pickle away in a cool dark place for at least two months, probably till Christmas.  You’ll need plenty of glass or plastic storage jars, don’t use anything metal or it will react with the vinegar. I bought mine in Deptford High Street, most of the general stores sell them and they are cheap, I think.

For the photograph I had to try the pickle freshly made and it was delicious, sweet and subtle. The blue-veined Cheddar cheese came from Green’s of Glastonbury at Blackheath Farmers Market, and the bread from Els Kitchen in Ladywell. “It’s French,” offered El, I think she meant the style of loaf, pain de campagne, and it did have a slight resemblance to Serge Gainsbourg.

Damson Pickle

Ingredients:

I had 2.27 kg (5 lb) of damsons

2 apples, cored and chopped into small pieces

2 onions finely chopped

450ml (3/4 pt) red wine vinegar

225g (8 oz) Demerara sugar

110g (4 oz) sultanas or raisins

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp juniper berries, crushed

Small piece, about 25mm (1″), (or more depending on your love of ginger),  of fresh ginger, peeled and grated., or, 1 tsp of ginger powder.

Method:

Wash the damsons and then slice them all the way around with a sharp pointed knife (I used a fish filleting knife) then twist them so they separate into two halves, remove the stones and discard. Then put the fruit into a large jam pan and add all the other ingredients and stir together. Put on your hob and heat, slowly bring to the boil and simmer for between 30 and 45 minutes depending on size of your pan.  Stir from time to time as it becomes thicker. You’ll need to simmer till the mixture reaches the setting stage, that is when you push a spoon through the surface of the mixture and it begins to resemble thin jam. It’s not too critical, but if you over boil or heat too long the pickle will be bitter.

Have ready some clean storage jars and some greaseproof paper.When you think the pickle is ready, pour into the jars and seal. Leave for a couple of hours then cut circles of greaseproof and rest on top of the pickle and reseal. Wait till Christmas!?


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