Written by Laurence Mitchell
Hangs one that gathers
samphire; dreadful trade!
William Shakespeare, King Lear
The Shakespeare quotation above comes from a scene set near Dover and probably refers to the practice of gathering rock samphire, but it is marsh samphire (Salicorniaeuropaea), sometimes known as glasswort or sea asparagus, that is the speciality of the Norfolk coast. The old name ‘glasswort’ comes from the medieval use of the plant’s ashes to manufacture soap and glass.
Although it can be found at other locations around the British coastline, the finest samphire comes from the saltings of north Norfolk. Enjoyed as part of the local diet for centuries, samphire has started to appear on fancy upmarket menus in recent years, usually as an accompaniment to fish and seafood.
It is harvested anytime between June and August before the plant flowers, but the sweetest is usually gathered early in the season. It is on sale at a limited number of outlets in north Norfolk in season but it is altogether more rewarding to forage for your own at low tide, providing you know what you are looking for and do not mind getting muddy.
Like most seasonal foods, samphire’s short-lived availability is actually part of its appeal. It can be eaten raw in salads although the saltiness is quite pronounced; a light boiling or steaming helps to remove much of this. With its taste like asparagus dipped in seawater, eating samphire is a pleasure akin to stripping edible beads from a necklace with your teeth.