Tag Archives: Norfolk


“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


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.


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


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

When Did You Last See A Bloater?

Last week a magazine asked me to go to Sheringham in North Norfolk. I’d been there before, and to nearby Cromer famous for crabs and the pier.  A bit of research turned-up Richard Little, now in his 80s he’s been fishing for crabs for over 60 years and is a Sheringham legend.  About 12 years ago Richard went into partnership with fishmonger Angela Barrows, and together they opened “Richard’s” a seafood shop in Church Street.

I rang Angela and asked her to arrange for me to meet Richard at the shop, she told me ring on the way. With visions of crates of live crabs being unloaded from an old wooden fishing boat by an even older fisherman, just past Fakenham I stopped and telephoned Richard. But he was too busy to see me. No amount of wheedling, “…but I’m coming all the way from London…its a 300 miles round trip…please…” would change his mind. “Leave me alone,”  he pleaded.

Fishermen always have one eye on the tide, and I expect he had pots to pull or nets to mend.  Nevermind, I thought, I’ll turn the car towards Cley Next The Sea (pronounced Cl-eye) and visit the  Smokehouse.

The Cley Smokehouse never disappoints, and after deliberating over the possible delights of smoked eel and smoked prawns,  I bought two bloaters for about £3.  Bloaters have all but disappeared from the nation’s fishmongers, and most people have neither heard of bloaters nor tasted one.  150 years ago bloaters were the most popular smoked fish , more popular than kippers, and always associated with Yarmouth in Norfolk, where the locals described themselves as Yarmouth Bloaters.  Yarmouth was founded on the herring fishery, just 100 years ago  Yarmouth was home to 3,000 herring boats, and in the season 5,000 women were brought by special trains to gut and pack the herrings. The shoals moved down the East Coast for 6 months followed by these migrant fishworkers.

Bloaters are herrings, salted or brined and then cold smoked whole, with their innards intact, for up to 18 hours. Smoke them for longer, perhaps 3 weeks,  and they become the legendary ‘Red Herring’, crisp and very dry.  But after 18 hours the result is a light smokey taste, not so strong as a kipper, and because a bloater is a whole herring the flesh stays plump and moist, bloated.  Cold-smoking doesn’t cook the fish, it lightly cures them, fish have been preserved by smoking and salting since prehistoric times, but these days the smoke is more of a flavouring than a preservative.

Along the coast road I stopped at Cookie’s Crab Shop in Salthouse, every time I’d been in the vicinity of Cookie’s it had been closed, but today it was very much open and busy.  I joined the queue and bought a crab sandwich (£2.70), and mused at the perfection, simplicity and sheer freshness of this quintessential English sandwich, compared with the usual pre-packed sandwiches you see in supermarkets and service areas.

Continuing towards Sheringham along the coast road I passed cottages offering ‘Crabs: Boiled and Dressed’, and ‘Samphire’.  I thought to myself that if I lived here I’d probably live on crab, and samphire too, when they were in season.

In Sheringham I drove around looking for Richard’s,  a friend had asked me to bring back some bloater paste.  A nice lady (Mrs Little?) sold me the last pot of bloater paste (£1), and a whole boiled crab (£3).

We had the bloaters the next day, though they’ll keep for a week in the fridge, the fresher they are the better. I deliberated about the possible cooking methods, grilling or baking, and decided on grilling them as recommended by Jane Grigson in ‘English Food’.  By chance I’d been given a lettuce, and not any old lettuce.  It was the opening day of the Brockley Open Studios,  and Clarissa was showing her paintings and drawings, we fell into a conversation with Laszlo, a new neighbour, who noticing the lettuces, beans and tomatoes growing in our front garden enthusiastically told us about all the things he was growing in his garden. He promised return with a special lettuce,  a Fat Lazy Blonde. I thought he was joking but no, there he was beaming and holding a large plump floppy lettuce. The Fat Lazy Blonde is a heritage lettuce, something the Victorians’ would have recognised. The name is a corruption of  Grosse Blonde Paresseuse, a French butterhead lettuce from 1859, and as the name implies a comfortable laid-back leaf!  The lettuce took pride of place on the mantlepiece under “Chanel Headscarf” and next to some rhubarb brought by another visitor.

Grilled Bloater with Mustard Butter

You’ll need 1 or 2 bloaters per person. Cut off the heads and fins.

50g (2 oz) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature

25g (1 oz) Hot Horseradish Mustard, or Dijon mustard


Black pepper

Prepare the mustard butter by simply mashing the mustard into softened butter, do it to taste. You could add some chopped chives if you wish.

Slash 2 or 3 cuts into each side of the bloater and brush with the mustard butter. Lay some chives across the bloater and put them one at a time in a buttered pan and place under a hot grill for 2 minutes each side. Scatter with black pepper and serve with plenty of chunky bread, and a quarter of lemon. I added some Fat Lazy Blonde lettuce leaves, a perfect foil for the hot fish.

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