A highly seasonal native sea vegetable
Wander round the Market at the moment and you’ll notice, seemingly on every fishmongers and greengrocers stall, a big box of grassy, asparagus-like veg. For those over a certain age, it’ll bring back memories of visiting the fishmonger at this time of year, when marsh samphire would be chucked in with your fillets as a freebie. Nowadays it’s more commonly found on restaurant menus, having seen a surge in popularity over the last few years that shows no sign of abating. Which is undoubtedly a good thing—for it’s one of the most environmentally friendly foodstuffs you can get, being local to these isles and growing wildly, in abundance.
“English marsh samphire has a short season—it was just starting around a month ago, so you’ve got about another four or five weeks until it flowers and goes tough,” explains chef and foraging expert Tim Maddams. It’s not to be confused with rock samphire: “The only similarity is their name and a slight resemblance, in that they grow out in branches, they’re succulents, and they’re green,” Tim explains. “Otherwise they are completely different plants.”
The clue’s in the names: rock samphire grows high above the water line, while “marsh samphire, as you can probably work out, grows in salt marshes,” Tim continues. “You can find it on estuary sides, too, around the British Isles. It’s quite recognisable—you’d struggle to mistake it for anything else if you were to forage for it.”
Minerally, succulent, crunchy
Minerally, succulent and crunchy, eaten young it needs the bare minimum by way of culinary treatment. “It’s absolutely delicious raw. Just mix it through salads as an ingredient, or it’s great with dressed crab.” If you do cook it—“it’s best to when it’s a bit older, as it becomes more fibrous”—it doesn’t need very long. “You want it al dente. I’d just dash it in a pan that you’ve cooked a fillet of fish in, then finish that with a little bit of wine and a knob of butter and just cook it for a minute to emulsify.”
But its uses aren’t limited to seafood: “I really like it with beef, actually—ox cheek braised in beer or cider, or some kind of sticky beef stew, steamed, as a garnish, or raw in a lightly dressed side salad,” Tim continues. “It just cuts through it. That’d be a great way to go.” If you find yourself with bundles of the stuff or are looking for a way of lengthening its sadly short season, Tim recommends pickling rather than freezing it. “Although it’s disappointing colour-wise, it keeps the crunch of the vegetable better,” he reveals. “It’s usually pickled in white wine vinegar—the French are mad for it.”