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Samphire on sale at Swansea Market (Vouliagmeni CC BY SA 3.0)

Once in a school French lesson, for a module in which we were asked to explain what there was dans ta région qui peut intéresser les touristes,  we had to explain what regional foods they could sample. With great enthusiasm I attempted to discuss the samphire du Norfolk — which no one else in the room had heard of, and which I then failed to explain adequately to the teacher. Now samphire is a little bit trendy — which is annoying because probably I could now get marks for talking about it, instead of being forced into discussing poisson-frites.

Samphire (you can say samfer if you are from Norfolk) is still hyper-regional: it grows on the salty mudflats on the coast of Norfolk, in north Wales, and in France (the word for it there seems to be salicorne or sometimes saint-pierre), but in the places where it grows it’s not confined to the menus of high-end restaurants. Growing up, I was encouraged to snap branches of it off when walking on the beach and just chew on it straight from the marshes, scraping the flesh off the woody stems with my teeth. It’s a wonderful plant to look at, like a miniaturised, knobbly, smooth-skinned saguaro cactus, and it can seem from a distance as thick as grass. It’s succulent, crunchy, and of course very salty.

It has a long history and even shows up in King Lear — in the scene where Edgar is pretending to the blind Gloucester that they are on the edge of a cliff, he adds in a samphire-picker to make the description more convincing:

Come on, sir; here’s the place: stand still. How fearful
And dizzy ’tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles: half way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!

This is rock samphire, a slightly different species from the marsh samphire which is usually available. But gathering samphire can still be “dreadful” — it likes deep mud.

Misinformation on cooking it is rife. I’ve seen instructions to cook it for ten minutes, which is far too long; five should be enough. Classically, you treat it like asparagus — dip it in melted butter, with a poached egg on the side. The one thing you don’t want to add is more salt in any form. The texture starts to deteriorate if you keep it too long after picking, and leaving it in fresh water too long will make it go slimy. It is sometimes billed as “sea asparagus”, “poor man’s asparagus”,  or even “sea beans”. It is hardly comparable and except on the coast by no means cheap.
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