The taste of a mermaid's kiss
Country Life UK|April 28, 2021
Once viewed as a lowly substitute, salt-loving marsh samphire is back in favour in our gardens and on our plates, says Julia Platt Leonard
Julia Platt Leonard

IT’S known as glasswort, seagrass, sea pickle, pickleweed, pickle grass, sea bean or even poor man’s asparagus, but, no matter what you call it, marsh samphire—Salicornia europaea—deserves a place on your plate. As the name suggests, you’ll find marsh samphire growing in coastal areas of England, such as the estuaries of Norfolk and the salt marshes and tidal flats of Somerset, where it not only tolerates salty conditions, but thrives on them, forming a green carpet of what look like mini cacti (minus the needles) or slender branches of coral. For those who have never sampled this seaside treasure, what does it taste like? ‘I’d describe the flavour of marsh samphire as asparagusy, cucumbery and salty, with a crunch,’ summarises Cornwall-based chef and restaurateur Nathan Outlaw.

Although marsh samphire shares a common name with rock samphire, another salt-loving plant, they are unrelated. Rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum) is a member of the carrot family and is found growing in crevices, cliff edges and along rocky coastlines. Both are edible, but rock samphire was, historically, more highly prized, if for no other reason than it often took two stalwart souls to harvest it—one to dangle over a cliff edge and the other to ensure he didn’t topple over. The practice is mentioned unkindly in Shakespeare’s King Lear: ‘Half way down hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade.’

Marsh samphire was often preserved and Hannah Glasse includes directions for pickling it in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747). She recommends brining it in salt, then cooking it in a brass pan with vinegar: ‘When it is cold, tye it down with a bladder and leather, and keep it for use.’ The plant was also dried and burned, the ashes combined with sand to create glass—thus glasswort. As for the moniker samphire, it most likely comes from sampiere, from Middle French herbe de Saint Pierre, St Peter’s herb.

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