Crithmum maritimum: rock samphire, sea fennel, sea asparagus, sea bean, sea pickle, crest marine
“There is a cliff whose high and bending head looks fearfully in the confined deep… The crows and choughs that wing the midway air scarce so gross as beetles; halfway down hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!”
Revelling in the scorching hot weather this week is this tough inhabitant of chalk cliffs described in by The Bard in King Lear. Rock samphire is a scrambling succulent, unrelated to better-known marsh samphire, which is slowly finding its way back into culinary use after a century spent in obscurity.
When bruised or broken the leaves emit a distinct aroma of lemon oil. The raw leaves have a strong carroty taste which is much more potent than marsh samphire. Later in the season the seed pods can be pickled and used as a substitute for capers, just as the Victorians enjoyed them, served with quails’ eggs.
Although rock samphire may occasionally be found on the shore line, one is more likely to spot it sprouting from fissures high up the cliff face. Being an excellent, free source of Vitamin C (it contains 30 times the concentration of the vitamin C compared to an orange) it was regularly harvested from the British coastline and transported to market in London where it was sometimes ‘cut’ with cheaper marsh samphire to make it go further. In those days it would have been known as ‘crest marine’, a name concocted very much with marketing in mind.
Four hundred years later chefs are once again turning to rock samphire for its unique, carrot-cum-parsley flavour and warm, aromatic taste. It can be steamed, stir-fried, used sparingly in salads and sushi, or pickled and served with smoked eggs, winkles and beer. There are even gins flavoured with rock samphire, including one of my favourites, Curio, made in Cornwall. Aficionados recommend simply steaming like asparagus and serving with lemon juice, butter and cracked black pepper, or coated with a hollandaise sauce. Both suggestions sound delicious.
Along Broadstairs’ cliffs we have rock samphire in abundance, much of it growing at conveniently harvestable levels. The antler-shaped fronds are a little past their best now, but I can’t resist plucking a few as I walk by in order to enjoy the zesty fragrance concentrated by the summer sun. It’s a pretty plant to boot, growing neatly and producing flowery umbels throughout the growing season. In England the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 made it illegal to gather rock samphire plants from the wild. If you are lucky enough to find a colony, harvest it in a sustainable way, picking just a few stems from each plant. Never pull the plant up from the roots.
If you’ve had first hand experience of cooking with rock samphire, or have discovered it on a menu in a trendy restaurant, I’d love to hear about it.