Samphire season

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

  • 23 FOP NEW DRK.jpg
    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.

    23 F wmill 2.jpg
    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).