Tag Archives: samphire

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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Salty Greens and a Salty Dog…

I’m just back from the rickety shack I sometimes call home, on the North Kent marshes. For the last two months I’ve been watching the samphire growing along the creeks of the salt marsh and finally I’ve had the time to gather myself and the three-legged wonder lurcher and get muddy.

Samphire is one of the only two truly indigenous plants of Britain, the other is Sea Kale.  Picking Sea Kale is prohibited, but you can collect Samphire so long as you don’t pull it up by the roots. The name comes from a corruption of the French Herb St Pierre, but it is also called ‘poor man’s asparagus’, and ‘glasswort’ because it was used in the 16th Century for the manufacture of glass. In America it is called ‘pickleweed’, and ‘seabean’, and sometimes ‘swampfire’ because in the Autumn it turns a bright red and the marshes seem to be on fire. My samphire is Marsh Samphire, not the Rock Samphire that was once commonplace in London, preserved as a pickle and sold on street corners by boys shouting “Crest Marine”, or “camphire!”  Shakespeare after visiting Dover described rock samphire gathering as a ‘dreadful trade’ in King Lear.  Children were dangled from ropes tied to their ankles off the tops of cliffs so they could collect the samphire from the rocks below!  Women scrambled across cliffs with a crooked stick collecting rock samphire for the London market; Samuel Pepys wrote of receiving a barrel of samphire from the Isle of Wight where it was foraged in huge quantities and sent to London in barrels of seawater, a contemporary writer lamenting that customers of Isle of Wight samphire were ‘buying their sauce with the price of the gatherers lives.’

My local fishmongers, F.C. Soper, sell Samphire all year round, like many of the fresh herbs on sale in supermarkets it comes from Israel. Call me old-fashioned but I prefer my samphire to be picked and collected in season, preferably by me, though I saw lots for sale in Norfolk where they call it ‘samfer’.  When I bought some from Furness Fish and Game in Borough Market, I asked the weather-beaten retired fisherman serving where it had come from?  Morecambe Bay was the reply. “What’s it taste like?” he said, his expression hinting that you’d have to be mad to eat anything so strange-looking. Samphire has become seriously trendy and ‘cool’, and the fact that you can find it at Borough and in some fishmongers confirms that Jamie, Hugh, and Rick can work their magic on this strange-looking plant which wouldn’t look out of place in Jurassic Park.

“Samphire is for those who want to live a life of total awareness,” says Jan Murre, a samphire gatherer and grower in Holland. I think he means you should try everything once! Thankfully Marsh Samphire is easy to pick, you’ll just need a pair of scissors, a bag,  some wellies, and in my case a reluctant lurcher who’d rather be chasing rabbits.  So if you haven’t tried samphire, head for the marshes. Look for samphire along the edges of muddy ditches and creeks where the sea washes in and out, better when the tide is out!

Once you’ve found some get snipping. Just snip the top fleshy part, lower down the stem is a woody interior, the top of the plant is the best bit. It’ll carry on growing if you just snip a few inches from the top and leave the rest. Don’t take more than you need, and leave the landscape as you found it. Samphire gathering is recognised as a historical common right, and I’m all for exercising those rights!

Samphire goes well with just about any fish and meat, especially salt-marsh lamb.  The best way to cook samphire is to lightly and quickly boil or steam for not longer than a minute, if that. I like to eat it raw just as I’ve picked it, so the less cooking the better.  I’ve found an old recipe dedicated to the actress Sarah Bernhardt. Whether she liked the dish, or it whether it was devised in her honour I don’t know. There are several recipes bearing her name, notably a chocolate meringue confection.  This recipe, ‘Larks with Samphire’, has a typically Victorian twist; of course I’m not using larks, you could make this dish with any small bird, a quail or a pigeon or two perhaps, but I’ve chosen to use poussin.

                              Sarah Bernhardt’s Larks with Samphire


Ingredients:

1 poussin per person

butter

2 handfuls of marsh samphire, washed several times then drained and any woody bits trimmed and removed

1 heaped tablespoon of chopped fatty baacon

1 or 2 rashers of streaky bacon

5 or 6 juniper berries, crushed

1 clove of garlic, crushed

some coarse black pepper

olive oil

1 thick slice of good white bread per bird, with or without crusts

1 measure of gin per person

Method:

Stuff the poussin with a mixture of the chopped bacon, some samphire, the garlic, juniper berries, and a little pepper.

Brush the bird with some olive oil and put into a roasting tin.

Cover the pousssin with a thatch of samphire and then top with the rashers of streaky bacon cut into pieces and scrunched so it twists and curls.

Season again with some more pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.

Roast in a preheated oven at 200C (400F) for 30 to 45 minutes depending on the size of your bird. Testing with a skewer will tell you if it is cooked through: if the juices run clear it is done. The bird may not appear ‘roasted’ and brown because the samphire and bacon will have protected the skin from browning.

While the poussin is cooking take the thick slice of bread and brush with olive oil, then place on a baking sheet in the oven about 8 minutes, maybe less, before the bird is ready. What you’ll have is a large crouton.

When you are ready to serve put the bread on the serving dish, and now the Victorian twist, drizzle with London Gin!

The add a splash of the juices from the roasting tin and carefully place the poussin onto the bread. Pour over a little more of the juices, then it is ready. This is pure theatre, encore Miss Bernhardt!


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