Samphire grows in abundance near water sources, namely on shorelines, in marshes or in salt-water mudflats. Described as a sea vegetable, samphire is a halophyte in formal terms, meaning it grows in or near waters with high salinity. This access to salt can come either through its roots or through sea spray, explaining why samphire can thrive in many different locations.
There are a few different species of samphire, but in the UK this is whittled down to marsh samphire or rock samphire. Marsh samphire is the much-loved species that finds its way into culinary creations, with bright green stalks that look similar to baby asparagus. When lightly cooked, the taste is pleasantly salty.
When cooking samphire, the best advice is to keep it simple, to really let the flavour sing. Either steaming it or lightly sautéing it with unsalted butter is typically how samphire is served and it goes best with white fish and other delicate flavours. This summer at The Lock Bar and Kitchen, samphire can be found accompanying many of our dishes. We’d also recommend trying our starter of a duo of scallops with panko cod cheek and roast pepper jam. This comes topped with salty fingers, another sea vegetable with a similar taste and texture to samphire.
Rock samphire isn’t recommended for eating. Both the smell and flavour is considered by many to be unpalatable. It’s widely believed this is the species of samphire Shakespeare referred to in King Lear, when he describes the gathering of samphire as a “dreadful trade”. This is thought to refer to the dangers of collecting rock samphire from sea cliffs, but may have something to do with the smell too.
Interestingly, the ashes of marsh samphire were previously used to craft soap and glass. The latter use explains the old English name for samphire: glasswort. It also explains why, in centuries past, glassmakers located their workshops in marshy regions where samphire grew.
Marsh samphire is at its best in July and August and given the plethora of salt marshes in the UK, it’s no wonder it’s such a popular summertime ingredient. Harvesting it isn’t easy though. There is a limit to how much samphire can be harvested in a day in order to protect the environment. On top of that, the changing tide can affect when it’s physically possible to collect it. With a relatively short summer season too, there’s a limited window within which this bright green foodie treasure can be collected.