Along with wild garlic, Samphire is the gateway drug to foraging. Abundant, obvious and full of flavour, it is a European seasonal staple that fell from favour but has made a full recovery to feature prominently on the menus of the finest restaurants.
For centuries, Samphire was food for the poor, free to those who picked it, usually ordinary people living by the sea. It is ironic that today it is regarded as a specialty food and is often served with an accompanying price tag.
There are a few plants that are called 'samphire'. Rock Samphire is the broader leafed, fuller flavoured and rather spicy version that was once highly prized and lends itself well to pickling. Scarcer than in its heyday and moderately difficult to harvest from cliffs and rocks along coastal regions, it is an ingredient well worth seeking when out on a seaside walk. It is one of those things that if you see it on a menu, you just have to order it regardless of what else is in the dish.
The more singular flavoured and coral-like Marsh Samphire is popular due to abundance and ease of harvesting. Marsh samphire was also a very popular source of soda for glassmaking, hence its other name - glasswort. Collected by hand in the summer months from the edges of tidal creeks, marsh samphire truly is one of those easy, free foods. It is most likely to be the form offered in restaurants and markets today.
For epicureans Marsh samphire is thought to be the inferior of the two species. In the Oxford Companion to Food Alan Davidson noted: Marsh samphire is more salty than rock and does not have the same powerful aroma. Whatever your preference, Rock Samphire and Marsh Samphire should be considered two of the real heroes of the larder, harvested for nothing and eaten with pride and gusto.
We are very pleased to be able to offer seeds of Crithmum maritimum, Rock Samphire.
Also known as Sea Fennel or True Samphire it is a perennial plant with blue-green stems and leaves and yellow-green flowers. Though this species is seldom found far from the sea and usually growing on steep cliffs or sandy beaches, it is very adaptable to cultivation and a variety of soils, as long as they are allowed to dry out and there is no standing water.
Stems which have flowered should be cut back hard or to the base, in order to keep the plant handsomely compact. Seeds are easy to sprout in any fast draining mix and are fond of self-seeding themselves into masonry cracks or stones.
Rock Samphire has leaves that look similar to purslane but slider wider and elongated. When samphire is found with a bloom that looks similar to a mature dill plant. Easily grown in the garden, the handsome, succulent, blue-green foliage have an unusual texture and contrast nicely with many plants. And the added bonus of edibility makes it all the more worthwhile to grow.
Somewhere between asparagus and capers in flavour, milder than rapini with a touch of saltiness, Rock Samphire has the thrill of a mermaid’s kiss.
Sowing: Sow seeds in spring or autumn.
Sow the seeds on the surface of lightly firmed, moist seed compost in pots or trays. Cover seed with only a light sprinkling of compost. Water from the base of the tray, Place in a cold frame. Keep the compost moist but not wet at all times.
Prick out each seedling once it has its first set of true leaves and transplant into 7.5cm (3in) pots containing free-draining compost and grow them on in frost free conditions until large enough to plant outside.
Gradually acclimatise to outdoor conditions for 10 to 15 days before planting out after all risk of frost has passed. Overwinter autumn sown plants in frost-free conditions before planting out the following spring. Plant out in well-drained soil in full sun. Plant 30cm (12in) apart.
Transplant to full sun and light soil; if the soil is rich, the stems get floppy. The plants dislike wet ground, particularly during winter. Improve heavy soil conditions by adding coarse grit or sharp sand prior to planting.
Rock Samphire is a salt tolerant hardy perennial plant but does not need to be grow in salty soil. It used to be grown in rock gardens in England where it grew easily in a light rich soil. It needs a well-drained soil so add gravel to the planting hole before planting outside the garden. Although samphire can be grown in partial sun, it develops a more attractive dense form with full day exposure.
Samphire is subject to mealybug infestations in greenhouse environments but seems to be rather pest-free outdoors. The blooms attract beneficial insects.
Harvesting: May to October.
Rock Samphire comes into season in spring, from the end of April and lasts through to October/November. Although it is at its best in spring and summer, it can be picked later in the year, more care needs to be taken to pick only fresh young growth as the older growth is stringy or woody.
Cut cleanly with a pair of scissors and gently water the tray after harvesting.
Often referred to as a 'sea vegetable', it is not surprising that rock samphire goes very well with fish and seafood in general, whether as an accompaniment or as an ingredient in recipes. The leaves and stems are succulent and go well with broad beans and are a great match for scrambled eggs or omelettes. The fresh salt of the samphire adds both taste and texture to salads. Leaves, stems and immature seeds are suitable for pickling and cooking.
There isn't any real preparation necessary except to cut it into required lengths if a recipe calls for it. Rock Samphire should always be cooked and although it can be prepared in any number of ways, many feel it is at its best simply steamed or cooked in water, then tossed or fried in butter, much like asparagus, especially if it is scarce.
A little goes a long way so allow a little over 25g/1oz per person for side dishes - less if it's being added to other ingredients. To cook fresh rock samphire, simmer in water for about 8 minutes then drain well. There's no need to add salt as it has a natural saltiness to it. For salads just blanch it for a minute and then refresh it in cold water. It couldn’t be easier. It is astonishingly good, simple cooking,
If you are lucky enough to have too much rock samphire, it can be frozen. Blanch in boiling water for a minute then dry on kitchen paper and open freeze in a single layer. Once frozen, gently transfer to freezer proof bags or preferably rigid containers to avoid the stalks getting broken.
Pickled Samphire Recipe:
Hand pick the small leaves before the plant flowers. Wash them in sea water (fresh water will do).
Cook the leaves in mixture of water and vinegar (70:30) for 15 minutes until tender.
Leave it to cool and store it in jars filled with diluted vinegar (half water, half vinegar).
The history of Sea fennel dates back to antiquity. In ancient Greece famous physicians such as Dioscorides, the father of pharmacology, and famous botanist Pliny refer to the plant and its valuable properties. Since the time of Hippocrates the plant was considered one of the most important medicines and till today is used for its diuretic and detoxifying properties.
The plant is quoted by John Gerard in his Materia Medica and Herbals (1597). In Gerard's time it was in great reputation as a condiment. He wrote: 'The leaves kept in pickle and eaten in sallads with oile and vinegar is a pleasant sauce for meat, wholesome for the stoppings of the liver, milt and kidnies. It is the pleasantest sauce, most familiar and best agreeing with man's body.'
Culpepper, writing some fifty years later, deplores that it had in his days much gone out of fashion, ‘for it is well known almost to everybody that ill digestions and obstructions are the cause of most of the diseases which the frail nature of man is subject to; both of which might be remedied by a more frequent use of this herb. It is a safe herb, very pleasant to taste and stomach.’
There are a number of sea vegetables that are considered to be delicacies in modern cuisine. Their nutritional value, taste and ease of growing make these crops incredibly popular.
Known as Halophytes or 'salt-tolerant' plants, they have adapted to grow in grows in areas of high salinity either directly in salt water or in coastal areas. They are not ‘salt-loving’ plants and do not have to be grown in saline environments.
Crops such as Salicornia (Sea Samphire), Crithmum (Rock Samphire), Sea Kale (Crambe), Salsola komarovii (Okahijiki) and Salsola soda (Agretti), Sea Aster (Aster tripolium), Sea Beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima), Tetragonia (New Zealand Spinach), Saltbush (Orach) and Alexanders (Smyrnium) can be grown at home or foraged from the wild.
Crithmum maritimum is an edible wild plant that has a broad native range, primarily in southern Europe, along the Mediterranean. Both the Romans and Greeks used it in their culinary traditions.
It can be found along the Mediterranean, Black Sea and Atlantic coastal areas, and the western coasts of Europe including Greece, the Canary Islands, North Africa and the Black Sea.
Crithmum maritimum is the only species within the genus. Commonly called Rock Samphire, it grows in rock crevices, rocky shores and along shingle beaches. It is abundantly met with where circumstances are favourable to its growth. It can be found on the southern and western coasts of Britain and Ireland, but is rarer in the north and seldom met with in Scotland. In Ireland it can be found in the south or west coast.
In Britain it was most commonly found on the coasts of the south coast of England and on the Isle of Wight, it grows in very inaccessible places often high up on the cliffs. It was an immensely popular pickle, unfortunately over harvesting eventually led to its demise and it is now rather rare.
In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey notes that: In the early 19th century rock samphire from the Isle of Wight and from around the cliffs of Dover was so popular that it was sent in casks of brine to London where wholesalers would pay up to 4 shillings a bushel for it. The fashion for it was revived after it was served at the wedding breakfast of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer. Barrels of it were sent to London for the feast from the Norfolk estate owned by the Queen, Sandringham.
Both the genus name Crithmum and the plants colloquial Greek name, 'Kritamo', is thought to come from the ancient Greek word for barley, 'krithmon', because the seeds of both plants resemble one another. If true, the derivation is very old as this plant was called 'kríthmon' or 'krêthmon' by the ancient herbalist Pedanius Dioscorides (circa 40-90 AD).
The species name maritimum alludes to its natural habitat in rocky or muddy areas along the sea shore. The plant can also be found growing along coastal cliffs where it is hit with salty spray from the sea.
Crithmum maritimum is commonly known as Sea Fennel or Rock Samphire. Crithmum maritimum is the only species within the genus. On those parts of the coast where Samphire does not abound, other plants which resemble it in having fleshy leaves are sometimes sold under the same name, but are considered by many to be quite inferior.
The samphire that is most common today is Salicornia europaea, commonly known as Marsh Samphire which is just one of about 60 species. Also known as salicornes or glasswort, it grows on the upper edges of salt marshes and is more freely available and much easier to harvest. It is unrelated to Rock Samphire, which grows on the eroding edges of the cliffs.
Samphire, was once spelled Sampere, or Sampier, derived from the French Sampière, which is a contraction of Saint Pierre. The herb was dedicated to St. Peter, the fisherman saint, because it grows near the sea. People in North Norfolk pronounce samphire as ‘samfer.’
The use of Samphire as a condiment and pickle, or as an ingredient in a salad is of ancient date. It used at one time to be cried in London streets as 'Crest Marine.'
Today in coastal districts where Rock Samphire is found, it is still harvested and eaten fresh or pickled by local people and there are many local names for this plant. It has extensive culinary use on many Mediterranean coastlines and islands, particularly on the islands of Greece where it is known as ‘Kritamo’. In Germany, this plant is also given a name equivalent to sea-fennel ‘Meerfenchel’. On the Croatian islands of Lastovo and Korcula, Rock Samphire is known as ‘Motar’ or ‘Motrikar’. In Ireland it is known as Craobhraic.
According to mythology Zeus became so angry at Prometheus' audacity to offer him a plate full of bones covered with fat instead of a good piece of meat, that he removed the privileges of fire from Earth thus punishing humans extremely hard. Then Prometheus with craftiness managed to steal back the fire from Mt. Olympus hiding it inside the crevice of a Sea fennel plant and giving it back to mankind.
For his actions he was severely punished by Zeus, who had him tied to a rock while an eagle ate his liver out every day. Sea fennel was since connected to mankind and the use of fire in order to survive and become civilized.
Rock samphire was once collected from the cliffs. Its fleshy green leaves were picked in May and pickled in barrels of brine and sent to London, where it was served as a dish to accompany meat.
Rock Samphire was once so popular and free, that people risked their lives to gather it from the cliff faces where it grew. Often children were used, a rope was tied to a child’s ankles and he was dangled over the cliff to pick the rock samphire that grew in crevices and clefts in the rocks.
In 1664 Robert Turner writing about the method of gathering samphire on the Isle of Wight noted that it was incredibly dangerous…’yet many adventure it, though they may buy their sauce with the price of their lives’.
It is so often is it mentioned in travel and botanical literature from the 17th century onwards that it has become a sort of literary cliché. Most of these writers make reference to Shakespeare’s famous description of the harvesting process in King Lear.
Shakespeare gives Edgar in 'King Lear' (Act IV scene VI) these lines:
'There is a cliff whose high and bending head looks fearfully in the confined deep… The crows and choughs that wing the midway air scarce so gross as beetles; halfway down hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!'
At the time that William Shakespeare was writing King Lear he was said to have travelled regularly through Dover. It was his familiarity with the cliffs that may well have inspired his descriptions. To this day the first cliff on the West side of Dover is known as Shakespeare cliff.
At the present time it grows but sparingly on the white cliffs of Dover, where Shakespeare described it, but in his days it was probably far more abundant.
During the construction of the Channel Tunnel, the area was known as Shakespeare Cliff Lower Construction Platform. In 1994 a competition was organised by Eurotunnel and the Dover Express to find a new name for the newest part of England which was reclaimed from the sea.
Hundreds of entries were received, from which the judges chose Samphire Hoe, (A ‘Hoe’ is a piece of land which sticks out into the sea). The name was suggested by Mrs Gillian Janaway, a retired English teacher from Dover, who would have been familiar with the history of the area and of its place in literary history. Rock samphire seeds were sown onto the top edge of the sea wall at the Hoe, where the plant is now thriving.
Samphire Hoe was reclaimed from the sea using almost 5 million cubic metres of chalk marl extracted from below the Channel during construction of the Tunnel and transformed into an award winning site enabling an impressive development of biodiversity. This stunning 30-hectare nature reserve at the foot of the magnificent Shakespeare Cliff attracts 100,000 visitors a year. It is home to some 230 different plant species (including rare orchids), 30 butterfly and 150 moth species and 213 bird species. In July each year, the rock sea lavender blooms, along with rock samphire.
If you are lucky enough to find wild rock samphire, please harvest in a sustainable way, only pick a few stems from each plant. Do not pull the plants up from the roots.
In England the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 has made it illegal to gather Rock Samphire plants from the wild.
- Additional Information
Packet Size 150mg Average Seed Count 40 Seeds Common Name True Samphire, Sea Fennel Other Language Names IR: Craobhraic, GK: Motar, FR: Fenouil marin Family Apiaceae Genus Crithmum Species maritimum Hardiness Hardy Annual Natural Flower Time Late summer Foliage Green Height 15cm (6in) Time to Sow Sow successionally. Germination 7 to 10 days Harvest Harvest using scissors once the plants have become well developed