Not getting into a pickle.
In the heat of last August the resinous aroma of rock samphire hit me for the first time. Sitting on the edge of the promenade, I gave a few experimental tugs at the wreaths of rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum – Apiaceae) around me. I had been prompted to do this by an interesting piece by Nicky Westwood in the Herb Society newsletter which told of a returning Jersey captain who on his brief visits home collected and pickled samphire to take back aboard his clipper.
The unexpected fragrance can either repel or intrigue. My own position was clear as I carefully picked the succulent leaves. Too late to attempt to eat the mature gone-to-seed specimens, that will have to wait to later posts, I intended to extract the ghost of the flavour in a vinegar.
Landscape with Ancient Roman.
In the small cloud of heady odour I looked up to take in the prospect in front of me. Further along in a corner of the bay was All Saints Church at Oystermouth (Ystumllwynarth) perched on a low natural platform above the shore. On the evidence of some ancient Roman finds it has been variously suggested that it was the location of a temple, a villa or, most recently mooted, a Roman farmstead. The invading Romans are known to have appreciated what they considered the good things in life. Turning 180 degrees I could see that the platform was ideally placed for a view of the bay. Our post-Picturesque sensibilities frame the opposite view to the west centred on the early 19th century lighthouse. If standing at the doorway of my now materialising Roman villa the bay would have curved gracefully to the east. It may be that Adelina Patti was not the first to compare the vista to the Bay of Naples.
Turning back, perhaps a little too quickly, I found a figure striding towards me from between the weaving lines of promenaders, joggers, cyclists and skateboarders.
I may. He seemed to ask with a patriarchal lack of question mark. One of the tenderest leaves was popped in his mouth and judged.
This is good … you know you guys have something here, you should make more of it. My ancient Roman grabbed me with an unnecessarily tight grip on my elbow.
Your friends, they are picking shellfish? He motioned in the direction of a group of what appeared to me to be off-duty anglers digging for worms on the sand flats left by the departed tide.
I have a good friend in the pickling business, you all should meet him, he can’t find enough of anything out here – but you’ve not experienced a caldarium yet. I wasn’t sure if this was another question or an observation on how he thought I might be a stranger to contemporary hygiene.
I haven’t yet had time to get my hypocaust dug. He glanced wistfully towards his villa/farmstead. But I know my friend would love to meet you all. I’ll have a word with him and we’ll all have some wine together – you really should try a little olive oil on this stuff, you missing out on something here. I was formulating a contribution to the conversation but he made to leave. Well, I know where I can find you. ‘Vale’, my friend. With that he was gone, heading in the direction of one of the very good gelaterie nearby.
My phantom ancient Roman was homing-in on desirable local resources and making his stake in the area; so today the presence of a branch of Waitrose will make the local house prices inflate like a well-kneaded sourdough. Away from their military sites, Roman ancient villas can seem open and vulnerable to us unless they were built on a certain amount of stable interaction with the local native population. You need only look across from the supposed Roman site for a contrast. There lies Oystermouth castle, built by the later Norman conquerors and ringed by a high curtain wall that no doubt once bristled with spears and eyes.
Rock samphire was to be found around the entire coast of the Roman Empire. Our phantom Roman would have already been familiar with what seems to have been a humble dish. Scholars suggest it was more associated with everyday life than notoriously indulgent ‘tender lark’s tongue and roast flamingo’ feasts described in Roman literature. That rock samphire is a freely available source of vitamin C, and so its regular consumption could have prevented deficiency diseases such as scurvy, no doubt added to samphire’s savour for many. This useful nutrient content, even when preserved, explains its popularity with sailors, and potentially with communities with occasionally limited diets such as the military.
Growing in crevices of seashore rocks and in sandy beaches, rock samphire thrives on no more contact with the sea than its spray. There is plenty of evidence for the long history of extensive samphire foraging where a scramble over the rocks could, when the easy pickings were exhausted, turn into a perilous rock face pursuit. The South Coast’s ‘dreadful trade’ as famously described by Shakespeare (King Lear, act IV, scene VI) was still titillating the public in print centuries later; containing more than one element of the Victorian cliffhanger. A colourful 1828 report from Wales (Bennel’s Cave, Glamorganshire [?]) follows a cottager spurred by poverty to collect samphire only accessible by rope from an exceptionally high cliff top. Stranded in a concavity in the cliff, his only way of escape was the rope now dangling well out of his reach. He only plucked up the courage to leap into space in the direction of his rope when he heard the voices of his wife and 6 children (or was it 8?) wailing from the cliff top
Nothing Succeeds like Excess.
An 1844 guidebook describes rock samphire as one of the products of the south Gower seashore along with limestone, oysters and the seaweed to make laverbread. After centuries of plenty by the last quarter of the 19th century, samphire was described countrywide as being scare at market. This mirrors the contemporary depletion of the once-plentiful oysters that was particularly marked in Swansea Bay and south Gower. Abundant oyster beds were given contemporary Empire-related names such as Fenian Hall, Abyssinia and Zulu (off Barry) – the association of excess and Empire is proverbial. Ships came from the Thames and northern France to take seed oysters to stock their own grounds. Nowadays, where nowadays devotion to cappuccino and teacake are the cause of snarling holiday hold-ups on the road to Mumbles and Oystermouth; in the 19th century it was oysters. Collectively the local day trippers represented a giant insatiable maw and, like their Roman predecessors, they consumed both fresh and pickled oysters. The consequences were clear to some contemporaries,
The poor bivalve [oyster] was allowed no time for breed and mothers with countless millions of young were destroyed in the summer months to fill the hands of the greedy and tickle the depraved palates of bibulous pleasure-seekers.
The Cambrian, 21st August 1874.
Nowadays the vast empty shore that is revealed when the sea retreats into the Bristol Channel is dispossessed of its skips, perches, plantations and other paraphernalia of the now long exhausted local industry. I muse at the pound-a-kick oysters at a fishmonger stall – at least we have our cockles, mussels and, potentially, rock samphire.
Rock Samphire Vinegar, bottled liquid green.
Food historians often wring their hands at the frequent ambiguity of their sources, but modern food writers (with a noticeable exception below) carefully distinguish rock samphire from marsh samphire (Salicornia europea – Amaranthaceae). Recently popular with chefs, the salty marsh samphire is now the object of an international trade. If, as happened to us, a stallholder claims to have picked their marsh samphire from the local rocks that morning, just smile sweetly and move on.
The public did not suddenly lose its taste for rock samphire; it seems to have vanished from general trade as its natural sources were depleted. But who with a single curious taste-bud in their head – and discovering rock samphire growing at hand – could not be intrigued by such descriptions as Patience Gray’s:
In Catalonia [rock] samphire is very much appreciated. Conserved in white wine vinegar, it is used in salads in winter; with thyme, mountain savory, and oregano it is used in preserving olives; and when salted anchovies are prepared in oil, it is added as an aromatic.
Honey from a Weed, Prospect Books 2002.
There are some intriguing recipes to consider but they will have to wait for the spring; now is the time for the vinegar. After some months of infusing the tough samphire leaves have been strained and discarded. The remaining spicy vinegar is proving very useful in the kitchen. Despite the fact that the clear vinegar is tinted red from the chopped shallots, the best flavour analogy is ‘green’. To me the vinegar is in the same wide-ranging ‘colour’ group as globe artichoke, spring onion, pea, thyme and, of course, tarragon. Use as robust tarragon vinegar, might be the best first advice. It is good in dressings and I tend to think of it as much as a flavouring as a vinegar. It is the sort of phantom ingredient the makes people say something vaguely encouraging about a soup or carrot salad, without know exactly why. It has brought home to me how a little acidity, be it a drop or two of lemon or flavoured vinegar, can be useful in freshening up the flavour of so many dishes from soups and casseroles, especially when reheated.
Selecting the images for this blog the glow of last summer is encouraging on a particular cold, grey Swansea day. This kitchen elixir has become quite precious to me and is hopefully the forerunner of a samphire-flavoured summer ahead.
Spiced Samphire Vinegar
This sole samphire vinegar recipe appears to be for the resinously flavoured rock samphire, rather than the salty marsh samphire. Unusually for a modern book it does not make this clear. However the technique seems to be adaptable. I included a bird’s eye chilli for a short time to add some piquancy, and a blade of Indian mace – just because I had plenty.
Pack 50 g samphire, 6 allspice berries and 2 finely chopped shallots into a large jar. Pour over 500ml cold rice vinegar or cider vinegar. Leave for 2-3 months before straining and bottling.
Preserves by Pam Corbin, River Cottage Handbook No.2, 2008.
Prof. Edible postcard collection.