Mud & Samphire

I have tried gathering wild rock samphire from the base of cliffs many times and, no matter what I tried culinary-wise, found it vile to eat. Imagine a flavour somewhere between chlorine and petrol and you’ll get the idea. Ignorant of the difference, I was initially sceptical when Chris Miller, one of our farming co-op members, first offered to harvest wild marsh samphire for us a couple of years ago. Today I am a convert; tender and succulent, the marsh version is wonderful briefly steamed with fish, a poached egg, in an omelette or mixed with broad beans in a warm salad. Think asparagus with a bit less cooking. I still read articles where journalists recommend rock samphire, but suspect they have never eaten it.

After obtaining the appropriate licence from English Nature to harvest this wild crop, we’ve been selling all the marsh samphire that Chris’s sons can collect during the brief season from late June to early August. The volume is not that great sadly because a nimble-fingered picker can only harvest around 2.5kg per hour; hence the price. Rather distressingly, most samphire sold in the UK is imported from lower wage economies, though you won’t find many restaurants that would admit to that. 

In a rare sunny interlude last week I visited Chris on his coastal farm by the meandering, stunningly beautiful River Erme estuary here in Devon. Some 200 years ago about 50 acres of productive grazing land was reclaimed from the river by building an earth and stone wall to exclude the tidal water. The work was probably done by Napoleonic Prisoners of War and the wall stood, with periodic repairs, until it was breached five years ago. The flooding salt water quickly killed the grass and the trees leaving bare mud which, much to our benefit, was colonised within the first year by the annual marsh samphire. It is fascinating to now see how the ecology is evolving in response to the influence of salt, water level and time. It also serves as a handy reminder that change is not always a bad thing.

Guy Watson

what do you do with your samphire?
We’d love to hear about your favourite way of cooking marsh samphire. Send us your recipes and photos to recipes@riverford.co.uk or post them on our Facebook or Twitter sites.