Samphire season

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Samphire is the summer season‘s trendy dish ingredient. Time Out's Guy Dimond traces it from the chi-chi restaurants of London‘s West End back to a mudflat in north Norfolk

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    Samphire: an East Anglian gem hits the West End

    Samphire is literally flavour of the month. It made its debut at the start of June at Le Caprice, then was sighted at Scott’s and J Sheekey. By July (peak of its season), the best-dressed menus in town will be featuring it. By September, it will be history. So what is samphire – and what’s the appeal?

    Samphire (Salicornia europaea) is a wild edible plant that grows on estuarine mudflats. It has ‘suddenly’ appeared because it’s just come into its short season (around mid-June until late August); after that, British samphire starts to develop inedible woody ‘skeletons’. And samphire is everything that food fashionistas hold dear: seasonal, British and expensive (costing around £10 a kilo).

    Mark Hix, award-winning food writer and chef-director of Caprice Holdings, says: ‘Samphire’s a perfect garnish for many fish dishes, such as red gurnard fillets with cockles. We also have it on the menu at Scott’s, and at J Sheekey as a side dish for the real addicts. I’m surprised it’s not more popular with the general public.’

    It might only be a matter of time before Tesco is stocking it, as samphire has recently been getting television exposure. It had an inauspicious screen debut in the 2003 comedy series ‘Posh Nosh’ (starring Richard E Grant and Arabella Weir). ‘Embarrass and savage any tough roots,’ advised Minty Marchmont. More recently, Norfolk-based chef Galton Blackiston has been championing it on the BBC’s ‘Great British Menu’.

    Around 50 fishmongers and specialist vegetable retailers in London sell samphire, though supplies are erratic. Many are supplied by Jefferson’s Seafoods, which operates out of New Covent Garden Market. Peter Grosvenor of Jefferson’s told me: ‘We get a lot of ours from the Hannaford area [around Looe in Cornwall], but a lot of other stuff comes in from France, and out of season from Israel and other places. I’ve heard they’re farming it in Saudi Arabia.’ Since it’s a coastal plant and easily washed abroad, samphire (various species) grow in the right conditions right around the world.

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    Samphire is picked from the coastal mudflats of north Norfolk (above) to appear on the season's best-dressed dishes

    To see samphire in situ, I travelled to the north Norfolk coast. Cookies Crab Shop in Salthouse overlooks samphire marshes, and it’s sold here at £4.95 for 1kg (still not cheap, but half the price paid in London). Owner Suzanne McKnespiey told me: ‘I used to pick samphire as a child, and my husband and I used to do it until recently; now we get a lad to do it for us.You can have it as a starter with just butter on it, or serve it with fish or meat.’

    Chef Galton Blackiston suggested I ‘treat it as you would asparagus – just steam or preferably boil it for a couple of minutes. You can eat it raw, but it grows in estuarine mud, so boiling is better. Don’t add salt. I use a little sugar in the water instead.’

    My samphire was a big success at dinner. Somewhere between asparagus and seaweed in flavour, it had the thrill of a mermaid’s kiss. The texture was too chewy, however: the season started early this year, and the stems are already becoming woody.

    There are no restrictions on gathering samphire; depletion of stocks is not a problem yet. The reason quickly becomes clear: you get very muddy, as the best samphire grows out of deep mud that gets covered by the tide. At low tide I don waders and head for the mudflats, much to the amusement of some watching twitchers. Avoiding the slimier specimens, an hour later I’ve gathered enough to keep me posh noshed for weeks. I might even try Blackiston’s mousse and grilled fillet of wild sea bass on samphire with a brown shrimp and tarragon sauce. Simon and Minty would have approved.

    Buying it

    FishWorks

    £14 per kilo from the popular chain. 6 Turnham Green Terrace, W4 1QP (020 8994 0086).

    France Fresh Fish

    £7.70 per kilo. 99 Stroud Green Rd, N4 3PX (020 7263 9767).

    Golborne Fisheries

    £9.90 per kilo. 75 Golborne Rd, W10 5NP (020 8960 3100).

    Eating it

    FishWorks

    Served as a side dish for £2.95. 13-19 The Square, Richmond, TW9 1EA (020 8948 5965).

    J Sheekey

    With a fish main course, around £25. 28-32 St Martin’s Court, WC2N 4AL (020 7240 2565).

    The Lobster Pot

    Special with smoked salmon, £9.50. 3 Kennington Lane, SE11 4RG (020 7582 5556).

    Scott’s

    Served as a side order for £4.25. 20 Mount St, W1K 2HE (020 7495 7309).

    Sweetings

    With the day’s special, £22.50. 39 Queen Victoria St, EC4N 4SA (020 7248 3062).

Users say

9 comments
Sylvan Quest
Sylvan Quest

If you're looking for Samphire, I've just started a small sustainable business called Sylvan Quest-https://sites.google.com/a/sylvanquest.co.uk/sylvan-quest/fresh-cornish-samphire I pick my Rock Samphire in a sustainable way, visiting a variety of different beaches in my local area (Cornwall) and just picking a little from each plant to ensure that it will thrive in the future. Beaches are picked carefully, I never visit the most popular tourist destinations, but choose clean and unpolluted environments to make sure that the Rock Samphire is as pure as it can be. Some ideas- how to cook Samphire Traditionally in Cornwall, Rock Samphire (or Sea Asparagus) is served simply, with a squeeze of lemon and a knob of butter, lightly steamed. It's also pretty good with some cracked black pepper and vinegar. Rock Samphire is naturally salty, so doesn't need any salt! You can also eat it raw, but it looses its slightly bitter taste after cooking, becoming softly aromatic and delicious. Rock Samphire makes a great accompaniment or garnish for steamed bass, scallops, oysters, and Mackerel. Well, it makes an interesting and appropriate partner for most seafood really! :) One Elizabethan recipe involves pickling the Rock Samphire with white wine vinegar, coriander powder, ginger, cinnamon and mustard seed- I've tried this and it's really nice, plus it lasts a lot longer so you can keep it in the store-cupboard for the winter when it won't be available.

Peter
Peter

luckily we have acres of samphire on the salt marsh near us, hmm £10/kilo

michele howes
michele howes

I collected mine from off our local beach at st osyth I added some to fresh salad and then stir fried some with garlic onion butter black peper and sweetcord even the children loved it as they helped pick it and it was so delicious

Sam Cornwell
Sam Cornwell

I bought some of this today. I boiled it for about ten minutes, then peeled it off the skeleton. it comes off incredibly easy. Samphire is classified as seaweed and tasted just as nice. It had a nice salty, easy flavour to it. Not chewy at all.

Mike Knowlden
Mike Knowlden

You don't even need to cook it if it's fresh enough. Couple of Sundays ago we picked loads and served in on Tuesday night raw with lemon thyme mayo - most people thought it had been prepared in some way.

alan
alan

I here you talking about picking sandphire in Norfolk but I live in Lancashire were do I get to pick some ?

gary nichols
gary nichols

yesterday me and my son joshua put on our old clothes,and headed off to norfolk coast.armed with buckets and rakes,went in search of the stiffey blue(cockles).After 40 minutes slipping and sliding through the salt marsh and mudflats,and myself ending up on my backside in one of the dykes covered head to toe in thick black mud,we got to our destination.Miles and miles of open beach,rakes out and sifting through sand and mud,the competition was on,who could collect the most.Two hours later enough cockles,time to pick the young tenderest samphire,which was growing further behind us,buckets full off fresh cockles and baby samphire quick wash in one off the pools of sea water, and headed back slipping and sliding all the way back to our vechicle.what a dinner we had, fresh stiffey blues on a bed of fresh samphire,drizzled with lemon butter and fresh pepper.

Richard Ingham
Richard Ingham

Bought a about 1/2 kilo from The Lobster Pot at Mudesley in Norfolk for £2.00 in July this year brought it home to Staffordshire where my lovely daughter made a fantastic Lobster dinner ( bought from same place) with boiled Samphire with lots of butter and black pepper. It was so good!!!!

ben thorsen
ben thorsen

...try samphire with ground pepper and lots of vinigar (boiled fisrt of course...