Fruits of the forage: rock samphire, water mint, garlic mustard

Categories: Expert guidance

Tim Maddams is a private chef, cookery teacher, presenter and author. In a three-part series, he shares his tips on foraging for wild greens along with recipe ideas to make the most of them. This month: rock samphire, water mint, garlic mustard

No more faffing. The soil has warmed, at least a little, despite the wet and we have even seen a few hours of sunshine. The lengthening days have worked their magic and spring, though off to a faltering start, has really sprung. There is green everywhere and as always, this fills me with vigour and wonder. Positivity—hope, refreshed.

And so, despite the plan for a three-piece series on wild plants of the season, I find myself penning a fourth—there is just so much out there to pick, taste, use and enjoy, and most of it will be gone again in a heartbeat until the heavens align again next year and conditions are just right for the plant in question to emerge from the bosom of the soil, into the light.

This time the plants in question are rock samphire from the coast, garlic mustard or ‘jack by the hedge’ from the hedgerow (as the colloquial name suggests), and water mint from the water meadows. All three are abundant and easily identified. Without further warnings to stay within the law and positively identify before you try, we shall head off in search of nourishment once more.

Rock samphire

Rock samphire
Now we all know and love marsh samphire (or just samphire)—that deliciously salty, crunchy, succulent summer marsh plant highly prized by cooks the length and breadth of the country. This plant is different. It has a passing resemblance to the other samphire, grows near the sea (though always above the highest possible water line) and is lightly crunchy, but there the similarity ends. Once you have initially, cautiously, identified it, break a little free and take a sniff. Does it smell very strongly of carrots? If so, you have indeed managed to identify it.

Rock samphire grows mostly on rocky crevices and stony cliff edges. It’s late to get going in the spring, not really pushing on with fresh, new season growth (which is the best to eat) until mid-April or even early May, depending on where you are in the country and what the weather has been up to. Before it really starts going, or while it is transitioning from the stasis of winter to the growth of summer, it can have a dark red-brown tinge to the leaves, which are thin and lacking the succulence of the season to come.

I have always liked the strong carrot flavour, but it must be used sparingly: too much rock samphire and you will confuse the senses, becoming more heating oil in its aroma—like “carrots and kerosene”, as the great forager and author John Wright puts it. Do not let that put you off. A little dropped in the pan while cooking a few mussels will add a wonderful aroma and you can get great results wilting it with wild garlic then dressing it with cream as a side dish, or garnish for pasta. You can pickle it too. I have, in fact, made a rock samphire-infused gin, which is rather wonderful in its oddness.

Water mint

Water mint
This very common wild mint is one that you will instantly fall in love with, particularly if you pick it when it is very young. It has an intensely fragrant sweetness to its aroma that is reminiscent of sniffing a now-empty box of mint chocolates. At this early stage it can have a purplish complexion and quite waxy-looking leaves, but it very quickly shoots up and becomes hairy and soft mint-like, still with a tinge of the colour of its youth.

You can use this mint in the usual ways, but it makes a startlingly good tea and works rather well in green sauce, mint sauce or even as a pesto combined with wild garlic and strong cheddar. The very best things I have ever done with water mint is to make a syrup for all sorts of uses, and to add it very finely chopped to black pepper meringues (make these with brown sugar for best results)—a very special addition to the first eton mess of the year, when the strawberries arrive.

Garlic mustard

Garlic mustard or ‘jack by-the-hedge’
This plant is in no way related to garlic—rather, it is a member of the cabbage family, along with other mustards. It earns its name for exuding a garlic-y aroma once the leaves are crushed. You can pick the lightly rusty green, broad-leaved, small plants from most waysides and park edges from now until early summer—but be warned, the stems are made of cabbage stalk stuff and as such are incredibly tough.

The young leaves work very well just picked, washed and at the very last minute shredded and added to salads, egg dishes and sprinkled on top of things. The garlic-y aroma is replaced by that of cabbage very rapidly during even the lightest of cooking. Treat the larger leaves of this plant as a light brassica or giant cress.

In terms of flavour, there is very little in the way of mustardy-ness about this particular plant. They are rather good creamed, though, or added to curries and stews, or cooked like you would spinach—though the flavour is a little more bitter and stronger.

For those of you who are wondering, its folk name comes from its ability to suddenly spring up out of the ground rapidly. Make of that what you will.