The shores of Glamorganshire are not as a rule so richly draped in seaweed as other parts of our coast. Ulva porphyra, however, is plentiful off Gower, and is turned by the natives into laver bread, and together with samphire (Crithmum maritimum) is sold as an edible commodity in Swansea market.
‘The Cambridge County Guide for Glamorganshire’, JH Wade, CUP 1914
Some things remain the same, and some things change. There is still samphire for sale in Swansea Market but it is not the same Gower-collected samphire that the author carefully identifies. Aromatic rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum), gathered for centuries from the coast, was a well-known commodity being transported in brine to cities – as from the South Coast to London – until it became scare. At that point another wild plant of coastal marshes was used to bulk-up or substitute for it at market, and in the process appropriated its name. The substitute could not maintain the level of supply and the overall trade declined, or reverted, to a local level as reflected in the 1914 quote above.
If it wasn’t for the recent tide of fashion we would only know marsh samphire (glasswort, Salicornia europaea) as a food that was consumed locally near to estuaries and marshes, or as a historic source of soda for the soap and glass industries. Now it is cultivated commercially in Dutch polytunnels, and further afield, while the original rock samphire is more or less forgotten. As a piece of culinary plate-dressing marsh samphire can appear like some personally foraged garnish straight out of its supermarket packaging – a far cry from Richard Mabey’s appreciation of marsh samphire as an ecological phenomenon in his new book The Cabaret of Plants. The story of the peripatetic ‘samphire’ name appears to be first clarified by Colin Spencer in 1995 (see below, or follow the link to my contribution to Herbs magazine that will appear after it is published, probably in 2016).[i]
Why make a fuss about ‘yesterday’s samphire’, especially unseasonably in January? (See also my earlier post ‘Rock Samphire, the Ghost of Plenty’.) In the mild dampness of this winter the most evocative memory of last summer is the heady aroma that arose like an invisible smoke from the bristling plant (even for a chronic sinusitis sufferer like myself). So, if walking on along the promenade, settle down on the sun-warmed wall next to one of the specimens that grow there. Admire the view over the unwinding line of the bay. Wait until the pure-white cumulus rises benignly over the Port Talbot works in the far distance. We know it is formed from the quenching of white-hot coke as it leaves the ovens, but let’s half believe for now that the towering cloud is a sign of the labour of duty-bound priests. Gravely they perform ritual libations on a fiery altar – every half hour or so – to propitiate the Gods on our behalf that our hours may be more productive and easy. Now turn to the rock samphire and inhale deeply of what is an extraordinarily heady natural aroma. Sitting comfortably? Let me address some samphire fallacies.
Samphire Fallacy No. 1 – Rock samphire tastes of kerosene.
Despite rock samphire’s long history as a popular comestible, a few modern food writers dismiss it out-of-hand; at least in doing so they are not committing the common error of confusing it with marsh samphire. Some people who know the aromatic wildflower as part of the seashore vegetation have gently mocked my culinary interest in it. Of course, this is all a matter of taste, which varies from person to person, place to place, and one period to another; one person’s kerosene is another’s ketchup. Nevertheless several dismissive writers appear to be confused whether they are judging rock samphire as a spice or as a vegetable. In the Mallorca it has been called the poor man’s capers and olives and is served pickled with the traditional pa amb oli, bread with oil. A cousin to celery, parsley, lovage, carrot, parsnip, perhaps the ‘umbelliferae caper’ would be truer. (This has reminded me that as a child I vehemently disliked celery, to my mind it tasted of – well – kerosene.)
In a pattern of consumption first recorded in the first century (by that Greek doctor in the Roman army Pendanius Dioscorides), some communities appear to have consumed rock samphire fresh after it was simply prepared by briefly boiling or ‘seething’ in butter. Within living memory Ligurian fisherman have used its fleshy leaves to supply fresh rations onboard, while pickled samphire, still rich in vitamin C, had long been the companion on scurvy-prone ocean-going voyages. At home, as a relish or seasoning, pickled rock samphire has been seen as an aid to make a meal more appetising. There are many pickling recipes recorded from the simple to more elaborate but inevitably an initial stage of brining helps maintain its texture and colour. Here is sensible advice of Mrs. Radcliffe:
Alternatively, Italian food blogger Wildcraft Vita has a beautifully simple pickling technique using white wine and vinegar.
It is perhaps best to come to rock samphire for the first time as a seasoning or condiment; in fact some have suggested rock samphire as an alternative to salt for those who would, or must, avoid it. It has been use to flavour the Cornish herring, or stargazey, pie and I have found picked samphire is a natural accompaniment to oily fish, fresh or tinned.
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’, Patience Grey, Prospect Books 2002.
In fact, I have even wondered if pickled samphire has a more interesting flavour than the comparatively two-dimensionally flavoured pickled caper. It seems full of potential and I look forward to experimenting again with it this summer. Allowing for the historical fondness for strong flavours (which seems to be returning on the forager’s plate) the following advice on the use of samphire in salads is a practical guide, and shows a sensible caution.
When a sallet is composed of four kinds of Herbs, there must be of [rock] Sampier one fourth part, when of five kinds, one fifth etc.
Batty Langley, ‘New principles of gardening …’, 1728.
I’ve found that you can get hooked on the taste. As observant Dorothy Hartley wrote (to be picked up by Colin Spencer):
There is something ‘magic’ about samphire … the liking for it is so uncontrolled that you find some families – miles away from the sea – getting it sent to them, as a delicacy, while the rest of the community look on in bewilderment.
‘Food in England’, 1954.
In moderation it can excite a sluggish appetite, as the well-read William Morris of Anglesey summed it up in a letter of 1750, I feel like putting my niece Margaret to work pickling samphire. The best pickles for strengthening the stomach, procuring ‘appetite and removing all obstructions’ according to the sages. The sages were no doubt the Renaissance herbalists including John Gerard whose Herbal (1597) states that it is the pleasantest sauce [seasoning], and best agreeing with man’s body, for the digestion of meats.
Here is Colin Spencer on fresh samphire that has had the benefit of the Mediterranean sun:
‘The Magical Samphire’ Colin Spencer. Disappearing Foods: Studies in Foods and Dishes at Risk: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1994.
Sautéing with tomatoes and garlic as a sauce for pasta sounds a promisingly simple technique (from another Italian food blogger Clorofilla). The BBC Food website lists two recipes with rock samphire (among 39 for marsh samphire, glasswort) that are of restaurant complexity. The first seems like a medieval-style hash such as described by Dorothy Hartley in ‘English Food’ (cucumber, capers, lemon, pepper etc.) for salt-marsh lamb or mutton. The other BBC recipe combines both samphires, this maybe a case of trying too hard (although this recipe may still suit those at Llanmadoc, see below).
During the autumn I put some of the then tough leaves of rock samphire to infuse in vinegar and with some chopped onion. When drained, the flavour (as reported in my earlier post Rock Samphire, the Ghost of Plenty) had a stronger, more interesting, flavour than the tarragon vinegar that it resembles. You occasionally come across reports that the seeds have been used as seasoning. I gather up some flabby ones at the end of the season and sprinkled some on a poached egg, like sumac seeds. My expectations were not high, but I had what Colin Spencer refers to as a ‘revelation in taste’. They had a flavour that was noticeably more tangy than the leaves yet it still had their distinctive green, herby flavour too; in other words a real-taste bud pleaser. Was it a once-off? I will have to wait until the end of summer 2016 to find out when I will attempt to dry and crush some which will hopefully make a lasting aromatic powder.
Fallacy no. 2 Rock Samphire is virtually extinct.
In the UK and the rest of Europe, rock samphire is on the Red List of endangered species under the lowest category ‘Least Concern’. This status may indicate that there is specific threat to the species. In addition to its nutritious qualities there appears to have been a history of rock samphire gathering for the sake of its essential oil, obtained by distillation. This oil can give a fresh aroma to cosmetic products (not to be confused with the soda ash once obtained from glasswort, marsh samphire, that was used the soap-making and glass-making processes.
The use of rock samphire extract in the cosmetic industry looks to be growing but exactly where this endemic European wild plant is being sourced is not easy to determine. Locally samphire may be protected in nature reserves, SSSIs etc., I find established casual plants to pick leaves from in all sorts of places as it is happy with its roots in lime mortar. If you have a boat this would include the quayside of Swansea Marina, where it will no doubt be weeded-out in time.
In the Balearic Islands, where it is traditionally still eaten, rock samphire is protected. There it can be picked legally only for personal use, or otherwise under licensed for commercial pickle making. This is an illegal stash of rock samphire leaves seized by Majorcan police in May 2015:
‘La Policía Local de Calvià interviene 10 kg. de fonoll marí recolectado ilegalmente.’ Noticias Calvia mayo 19, 2015.
In Britain rock samphire’s long-term popularity meant that it could only be acquired with difficulty. William Morris at Holyhead commented that the well-known pickle hardly grows where Men can come at it, without being let down in Ropes.
There was a time, when the works of Shakespeare were universally taught in schools, that it was assumed that everyone knew the quote from King Lear; Halfway down, Hangs one that gathers samphire – dreadful trade; whose use was to become hackneyed over the centuries. Unfortunately there were not many actual reports of dread associated with the everyday trade of samphire gathering. [ii] An anonymous temperance ballad ‘Martin Riley, The Samphire Gatherer’ (1833) was published in some popular magazines. It takes twenty-seven stanzas to reach a finale perhaps predictable from the first: Scatter’d and smash’d are his limbs strewn! And soak’d and red the sand. What real-life stories there were needed the application of an imaginative writer, as was the case of the tale recorded by Rev. Richard Warner in his ‘Second Walk Through Wales’ (1789). On his journey between Boverton and St. Donats he was guided to ‘Rennel’s Cave’ (my local informant suggests Tresilian for this otherwise unrecorded name). The distinctive cliffs of lias limestone in the Vale of Glamorgan supported great colonies of rock samphire that was harvested and traded by the local people.
One of these told Warner a story that was ‘so full of horror, that to use a vulgar, but very expressive phrase, it made our blood run cold’. What is remarkable about this story – where a gatherer loses his grip of his lifeline only to be forced to rescue himself by bounding towards it from the cliff ledge – is not its narrative, but how an elaborated version was to be repeated republished as a sort of stock copy. By 1799 the original story was published verbatim from Warner’s book in several magazines. From the 1830s an elaborated version added a starving family who watched from the cliff-top as the family’s breadwinner escaped from his trap. Leaving nothing to the imagination, it added raging waves and ragged rocks among other verisimilitudes. This ‘sexed up’ version was bounced around magazines and newspapers (including The Cambrian, 9th February 1833). Fittingly, the phrase ‘dreadful trade’ became a half-humorous allusion to journalism and hack-writing, and would nowadays even more correctly apply to blog-writing.[iii] This is an illustration from 1844 American version of the Glamorganshire samphire gatherer:
Not waving but bounding. ‘The museum of remarkable and interesting events…’, J. Watts, Ohio 1844.
Nearer to our own home and time, and without the aid of ropes, I have picked leaves from many individual plants on Swansea Bay promenade and on Gower rock-side paths. I have yet to see anything like the ‘meads’ of samphire described in the past on the chalk and limestone at Dover and Freshwater Bay (Isle of Wight) that supplied the London markets.
On the Gower peninsula the clever Rev. JD Davies (1831-1911), Rector of Llanmadoc and Cheriton, observed that ‘A good deal of samphire grows on the cliffs hereabouts, and on those of the Burry Holms’. Davies was fortunate to have had two edible samphires in his parish, for on the edge of the salt marshes grew –
glass wort (Salicornia herbacea [sic]) ; a succulent sea green plant, … often sold under the name Samphire, and made into pickle ; but far inferior to the genuine samphire which is never found except on the rocks. The glass wort, commonly called the Marsh Samphire by the country people, has a leafless and jointed stem, with small green flowers.
Rev. JD Davies, ‘A History of West Gower’, Part III, 1877-1894.
Interestingly, he commented that the local inhabitants ignored the rock samphire not seeming to ‘know its value’ – either for subsistence or trade. This is in midst of earlier reports of the harvesting of, and trade in, rock samphire on the Gower peninsula; it may have been the case that not all samphire colonies were the focus of gathering, at least to exhaustion.[iv]
Other fish, of the most valuable kinds, abound on the coast of Gower, the lobsters are uncommonly large and fine. Among the produce of the coast must also be enumerated samphire, called in Welsh corn carw’r môr, which grows on rocks and cliffs not overflowed by the tide, is gathered when out of blossom, boiled and preserved, and much esteemed as a pickle …
Part of the above-mentioned produce of the coast, viz., samphire, laver, oysters, turbot etc., and some of the river fish, are sent to Bristol and the interior of England.
‘A Topographical Dictionary of Wales’, Glamorganshire, vol. 1, Samuel Lewis 1840.
Samuel Lewis’s list of coastal produce may indicate that rock samphire was sold by fishmongers, as opposed to greengrocers, as its successor is today. So the familiar sight of a pile of emerald-green, pencil-thin leaves next to the fish and shellfish may go back further than we think.
Could there have been all this past trouble over something that tastes like kerosene smells? Our ancestors knew how to prepare and relish it, a knowledge that we have lost until now when it makes itself known again in coastal nooks and crannies. Its return to market would risk yet again the presence of what is an attractive summer wildflower on our seashore. But, if you stumble across it at the end of a cliff-top walk, rather than at the end of a cliff-hung rope, try it with knowledge and judgement; for, if you like it, you will have enjoyed an astonishingly aromatic, remarkably nutritious and celebrated part of our natural common wealth.
[i] Yellow-flowered Inula crithmoides was sometimes used, giving it its common name golden samphire. I can be often found growing with rock samphire.
[ii] The literary possibilities of samphire feature in Patrick O’Brian’s short story of the same name.
[iii] ‘The dreadful trade of journalism’ (G.K. Chesterton, The Illustrated London News, Dec. 28, 1935.).
[iv] The much-repeated description of rock samphire’s use as a cattle feed originates in an error in Pennants ‘Tour of Wales’ (1778, 1781)where the subject is sea plantain, Plantago maritima. See Hugh Davies ‘Welsh Botanlogy’ 1813.