Samphire’s time has come again in the last decade. Anyone driving along the Norfolk coast roads would have been familiar with local sellers offering freshly gathered marsh samphire by the roadside. Now it’s become a chef’s must-have, along with sea purslane and other foraged foods. Amazingly, I find it’s a member of the carrot family – and ‘samphire’ is a take on Saint Pierre because Pierre and ‘rock’ (samphire’s habitat) are one and the same in Greek. Too much research is not a good thing.
Selling samphire was restricted to fishmongers, but with the sad demise of that trade across the UK, it has found its way onto the icy slabs of the supermarkets’ fish departments where it sits unexplained with little pick up.
I have a samphire confession. I prefer my samphire pickled. Fresh is great when it’s first of the season, but I soon tire. Poached or steamed, drizzled with melted butter and eaten standing up in the kitchen – great once, sometimes twice per season. Pickled samphire is a year round delicacy. Salicorne as it’s called in France is where most pickling is done. Fresh samphire is expensive in England; pickled salicorne is France is not and neither need it be. The word ‘foraged’ equates with greed over here – sad, unless you learn to forage for yourself then it’s free.
Samphire is abundant along both sides of the Channel – next to Folkstone is Samphire Hoe, a reminder of the vegetable’s popularity through history. The Tudors and the Elizabethans particularly relished samphire and references are plentiful from those times.
Pickled salicorne partners specially well with shellfish – oysters positively cry out for it. Most grilled fish is agreable with a side of salicorne too. Charcuterie likewise – serve pickled salicorne as a change to, or as well as, cornichons with the classic Rillettes du Mans and coarse cut terrines. But best of all is with roast lamb – pre-sale if you can afford it and it’s guaranteed salt-marsh reared from birth (most is not – please be aware); young, new season, pink fleshed lamb if you can’t. Serve the salicorne ever so slightly warmed through or cold – either way is special.
Richard Blades, a talented, well mannered young chef who took over the stoves at Simpson’s-in-the Strand, taught us another way too. In the midst of the BSE crisis, when beef on the bone was outlawed – another ill considered, knee jerk law which was never made to stick – Joy organised a banquet for the Guild of Food Writers at Simpson’s. I had the joy too of advising on the menu and its staging having mounted another grand-bouffe there just months before. Between us we served a lot of beef on the bone that year.
Blades had been recruited to rejuvenate the tired, well worn Simpson’s from studying under London’s original Michelin starred chef, the great and gentle Michel Bourdin at The Connaught.
Blades knew his craft. He even changed the beef regime for the better – and was proud to do his own butchery in-house in Simpson’s cavernous underground kitchens which permanently smelt of roasted meats. A vegetarian Hell if ever there was one.
The food writers were in for a treat that day - beef aged 40 days, roasted and carved off the bone at table. Spontaneous applause as the famous silver domed trolleys were opened by the equipe of carvers then employed at Simpson’s. But here’s the special bit.
Dark green cabbage is every bit a Simpson’s tradition as roast meats – and Blades served his shredded and buttered with a liberal amount of samphire stirred through. A tour de force if ever and one we have made a house speciality since that memorable luncheon. Pickled samphire, for us, adds greater depth. We’ve lost touch with Richard Blades – he moved on. But we think of the Young Blades whenever we reach for the samphire.
Just as Roquefort is suited to lamb – and lamb befits samphire – so a Confit of Salicorne with Roquefort is a perfect match too. What we must try next is a take on Rockefeller – with the creamy spinach replaced by Roquefort and chopped pickled samphire, or even a teaspoon of the elegant Confit.
Closing this post please note I didn’t call it ‘sea asparagus’ because I think it tastes nothing whatsoever like asparagus. Myths abound in food. Let’s hope that one has taken a bludgeoning.