It’s the asparagus of the sea, a crunchy, salty, web-like plant that compliments a broad range of summertime dishes. Maybe it’s the bright freshness it delivers, or perhaps it’s the close affinity it has with seafood, but samphire is arguably one of the most quintessentially British ingredients. When used well, it can be a secret weapon when designing a dish.
Rock samphire grows abundantly in the UK in coastal marshes and tidal mud flats, which has led many seaside-based chefs to go out and forage for it. The flavour of samphire has often been described in similar ways as the oyster, tasting of the fresh salty ocean. This makes it great for seasoning robust salads, and as a garnish can add it’s own salty kick to a dish. However, one of the most magnificent ways to prepare samphire is dressing it abundantly in olive oil and throwing it in a pan. As small blisters begin to form on the grass-like plant, fresh lemon zest, lemon juice, some grated garlic and a crack of black pepper takes this hardy plant in a similar direction to blistered padron peppers. Much like this Spanish dish, the blistered olive oil samphire makes for a perfect summer accompaniment to dry sherries such as Fino, Oloroso and Palo Cortado.
Gull’s eggs happen to provide a classic partnership with samphire, which can give you a very nuanced taste of a region. Gulls nest in the same marshland and mud flats that samphire thrives in. The large rich eggs can only be harvested in controlled areas – the marshlands near Lymington in Hampshire being a prime location in the tidal waters of the Solent.
Citrus peels such as grapefruit and bergamot also take samphire in exciting directions and can help to season and dress the green plant, or add flavour when stewing down to use across roasted lamb.
Of course, it would be remiss to not mention samphire’s glorious affectation with seafood. The two naturally go hand in hand and whether it’s a dredged and pan-fried bass, or a whole turbot to share, samphire adds a certain contrast in texture and a sprightly addition to the table. It’s great with muddier flavours too, so consider utilising it with things like brown crab meat. When used in the filling of a crab ravioli it can be wondrous, but it can also be cut into smaller shards that can enter the boil with other seafood stuffed pastas and add a healthy burst of colour and texture when plated.
Samphire is a vibrant seaside speciality that often falls by the wayside in the busy summer months. However, when used well, British rock samphire can be one of those ingredients that makes a good dish great.