July – Marsh Samphire
Salicornia species. (Mostly S. europea around Galloway)
AKA Glasswort (it used to be burned to create soda ash for use in glass making), Sea asparagus, Picklewort.
I have a love-hate relationship with marsh samphire. Mostly its love – the wide open seascapes where it thrives, its odd cactus-like appearance and its wonderful salty-fresh succulence. Even the silty, squelchy estuarine habitat where it grows has a “mud-glorious-mud” gooeyness that appeals to the filthy schoolboy in me.
So come June and July when marsh samphire is at its juiciest and hasn’t yet developed too much woody stem, I set off for the unctious oozy estuaries where it thrives with a light and happy heart, revelling in the wide open space, lonely gull cries and slightly foreboding maze of briny creeks and ditches that twist through the salt marsh guarding the shoreline. When I arrive at the unctuous silt beds at the tide’s nether reach and see its massed ranks of succulent shoots resolutely defying the salt and goo, I fall to my work with vim and relish.
It normally takes less than 5 minutes before I am crabbit, moaning and thoroughly in need of a good lie down. Standing ankle-deep in sucking mud, stooped or crouched with my back cramping at a right angle and plastered in fine, filthy silt soon takes its toll!
Now I know that I really shouldn’t moan. I’m blessed to be there, lucky to be gathering a small portion of nature’s bounty in a stunning setting. But I’m 6’3″ and worked as a coal man for 8 years and being bent double gathering hundreds of 5″ mini cacti from sucking mud hurts! If this weren’t already torment enough, this year I managed to drop my water bottle mouthpiece-down in the mud immediately after eating several handfuls of salty samphire. It was the hottest day of the summer and there was no clean fresh water for a mile in any direction. The gulls learned a few new exclamations that day, I can tell you!
To help cope with the pain and monotony, I find myself fantasising about labour-saving marsh samphire harvesting contraptions. Perhaps an old flymo, or a hover-lilo so I can float around horizontally with a straight spine. Realistically, the best i’m going to manage is a box to sit on, but even that will soon get clarty and firmly stuck in the goo.
No, the best things to take on a marsh samphire harvesting expedition are wellies, scissors, a bucket or fine mesh bag, a picnic, a sense of humour and some like minded friends to share the joy, pain and utter filth. Many hands make light work. Deep mud and quick tides can make estuaries dangerous places, so its safer to hunt in packs too. Get down and dirty, cutting the succulent top few inches above the woody stems. This allows what remains to regrow and set seed – it is both irresponsible and illegal to uproot them. Keep going until the boredom and pain become too much, then retreat to a dry bit of salt marsh to eat and enjoy the splendour of the setting as the vertebra in your spine crunch back into realignment.
With a little effort you shouldn’t have much trouble finding marsh samphire. It is relatively common in suitable habitats around Galloway and most of the UK. These pictures and descriptions should give you a clear idea of where to start looking. Identification is straightforward too – there is really nothing else like it.
If you can find some clean sea water (not as easy as it sounds!) to thoroughly rinse the samphire in before taking it home, so much the better. You will save yourself a sink-full of silt and increase the fridge-life of your collection to a couple of weeks. If you rinse away their salty protection in fresh water they will degrade much more rapidly.
Whinging aside, marsh samphire is well worth all the depredations of harvesting it. As you would expect, it is salty, yet it still manages to be succulent and refreshing. The tenderest tips (even more laborious to harvest in May) add a delicious seasoned crunch to salads. Steamed for a minute or two, it makes a delicious finger food with lemon butter or hollandaise for dipping (if you are using older specimens that have developed a woody core, it is practical and pleasurable to drag them between your teeth to remove the flesh). Traditionally it is served as an accompaniment to fish (its the only vegetable that is never sold in greengrocers and only in fishmongers), but it is undoubtedly at its finest served with lamb – preferably salt marsh lamb – which is quite likely to have nibbled a fair bit of it when it was alive. Lamb generally responds well to salty flavours and my ultimate roast is leg of salt-marsh lamb studded with rosemary, garlic and anchovies and seasoned with samphire salt, served with steamed samphire, sea purslane and orache. It is pure heaven – a montage of brackish delights – and an uplifting reward for the tribulations of harvesting.
Steamed marsh samphire with poached egg and langoustine
——————————————————————————————————————— Sweet pickled marsh samphire
———————————————————————————————————————Salt marsh lamb with samphire salt, anchovies, rosemary, garlic and steamed marsh samphire