It’s salty, crunchy and a bit of an ‘it’ ingredient on the culinary scene of late, with foraging television chefs like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Al Brown showing us where to find it and what to do with it. England has a long tradition of eating samphire – the type that grows in salt marshes (there are many other varieties of samphire which may or may not be as edible). There, samphire (Salicornia europea) was typically sold at fishmongers, or given away as an extra treat, as a suitably maritime accompaniment to your weekly fish dinner. That practice is no longer ubiquitous, but samphire is starting to turn up at farmers markets in the UK, so it’s likely we could soon see it for sale here, too.
The samphire that grows here in New Zealand (Salicornia australis) is slightly different to that in Europe; it’s a little less fleshy, but just as flavoursome. There’s also rock samphire, which is also edible, but harder to find. Look for samphire in tidal zones, the muddy or sandy flats of estuaries for example. Or you can buy samphire seeds from Kings and try to replicate a marshy environment in your home garden. To harvest it, just pick the tender tips, leaving the fibrous stems and roots behind – this way you won’t need much prep, and you’ll leave its habitat largely untouched. The sudden rise in popularity of samphire foraging in the UK has led to worries of over-harvesting and destroying the root system, resulting in the mud flats washing away.
Although samphire is not a seaweed, its nutritional profile is similar to one, with an array of minerals, salts, iodine and calcium. It won’t keep very well, so use if soon after procuring it. You can eat samphire raw, but you’re more likely to detect its muddy heritage. To cook, treat it much the same as asparagus, but don’t add salt to the water as samphire already tastes of the sea, and bear that in mind when seasoning any dish you add it to. Three minutes in boiling water will do it, then refresh it in ice-cold water before adding to a dish or eating it as a standalone dish, with a bit of olive oil, or butter, and lemon juice.
Other ideas with samphire:
– A salad with baby new potatoes, samphire and toasted almonds.
– Add samphire to the delicious spring vegetable stew recipes that are popular right now.
– It’s very pretty tossed through spaghetti. Try with just some garlic, chilli flakes, toasted pine nuts, a bit of parmesan and plenty of olive oil. Add a poached egg on top for a filling meal – stirring the runny yolk through to coat he strands of spaghetti is ridiculously pleasing.
*As published in Taste magazine, November 2011.