PETER FROST finds one of our best wild harvests, Samphire, is a little late this year.
Regular Ramblings readers will know Ann and I need little excuse to head for the North Norfolk Coast and a breath of sea air at any time of year.
At this time of year however there is a particularly good reason to head for our favourite part of the coast.
This is the samphire season. All along the coast tiny stalls outside private houses offer the bright green sea vegetable that some people call poor man’s asparagus.
Apparently during war-time austerity and rationing the Minister of Food issue the working classes with a recipe for nourishing Salmon Head Stew.
Communist leader Harry Pollitt asked the obvious question. Who is eating the rest of the Salmon?
I’m with Harry. For me poor man’s asparagus is, not to put too fine a point on it, good fresh English asparagus.
But in fact much as I like the fresh tasting green spears that turn your wee a funny colour I actually enjoy samphire even more.
Samphire is a delicious sea vegetable which grows largely on the mud flats around estuaries on the East Coast and in Norfolk in particular.
Really young and fresh it can even be eaten raw. Like oysters it tastes of the sea. Most people gently steam or poach it and serve it either alone running in butter or as the perfect accompaniment for shellfish, white fish or, best of all, salt-marsh raised lamb. Once cooked samphire can be sucked off the wiry stalks to melt in the mouth with a flavour much finer than any asparagus.
Samphire is usually at its best in late June. This year like many crops it is a little late. By September it will have become tough, bitter and no longer fit to eat.
Ancient herbalist Culpepper recommended it for its diuretic and digestive properties. He believed it eased flatulence. I don’t know about that but it is certainly full of minerals and vitamins.
Away from the coast you can sometimes find samphire in posh food shops or in good fishmongers.
Sometimes it will be fresh, but more often pickled in jars from France. Much rarer are jars of Norfolk pickled samphire.
There are actually two types of samphire. By far the most common is marsh samphire, the one we eat in Norfolk in summer. It looks very much like a minature cactus from a cowboy film.
It grows around estuaries and also tidal creeks, either on muddy flats or in the sand. Because of this it has a distinctly salty flavour. Like oysters it tastes of the sea.
Rock Samphire is much harder to find and grows on rocks and cliffs, often at great heights. This makes harvesting dangerous. Shakespeare knew this plant well.
“Half way down hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade!” is a line from King Lear.
Both varieties taste very much the same. Real experts seem to favour the rock variety but that might just be the machismo of the climb to get it.
Samphire is sometimes called a seaweed but it isn’t. It’s a succulent plant of the salicornia species.
Brave souls can gather marsh samphire for themselves. You will need to venture out on to the muddy, and sometimes treacherous salt marsh.
If you do take the risk be careful how you harvest the plants. Take only the fresh bright green tops of the plants. Pinch them out or cut them off with scissors.
That way you will get the best and most delicious part to eat and just as important leave the rest of the plant to grow again for the next samphire gatherer who comes along.
You might hear samphire referred to by its much older name – Glasswort.
Centuries ago huge quantities of the plant were gathered and burnt. The ashes were used to produce soap and early glass, hence the name.
Because samphire grows profusely on marsh unsuitable for any other crop there are proposals to grow and harvest it for bio-diesel production.
I just hope if that happens there will still be enough left to give us few poor men one of the best meals you can enjoy in summer on the heavenly coast of North Norfolk.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star June 2013