Intense and salty, samphire adds a fresh burst of flavor to fish dishes.
What is it?
Samphire, or sea beans and sea asparagus as they are called in the United States, are a type of edible, succulent often found in salt marshes and beaches. Samphire has been foraged for centuries and is used in a variety of regional dishes in the UK and other parts of the world.
Types of Samphire
There are many varieties of samphire, but for the most part, marsh samphire and rock samphire are most often used for cooking.
Marsh samphire, or salicornia, is the most common variety and can be found in certain grocery stores. It has a passing resemblance to asparagus and can be identified by its small, green segmented twigs. Marsh samphire can be found growing on various beaches and the shorelines of salty marshlands in Europe and North America. It has a texture similar to cooked asparagus and a distinctly fresh and salty taste. It has been described as tasting like seaweed, minus the fishy aroma.
Marsh Samphire isn’t just only used for cooking. The plant is a good source of sodium carbonate and was used to make glass and soap as far back as the 14th century in Norfolk in the UK.
Rock samphire, or crithmum, is far less common than the marsh variety. It was originally the more popular variety but the difficulty in finding and foraging for it has made it more of a niche plant. It can be found clinging to coastal cliff faces and can be genuinely dangerous to seek out without suitable rock climbing equipment and training. The inherent difficulty in tracking down rock samphire was established as far back as the Elizabethan era as it was mentioned by Shakespeare in King Lear:
“Half-way down Hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade!”
— Act IV, Scene VI, Lines 14-15
Despite the name, rock and marsh samphire are two completely separate species of plant. Rock samphire is part of the carrot family and while it shares marsh samphires saltiness, it has a more intense spicy flavor. It also looks different, its twigs are not segmented and the plant itself resembles a green deer antler.
How to use samphire
Similar to herbs, samphire is best enjoyed fresh and will lose its pleasant texture and taste if not used soon after harvesting. It works well when paired with fish and the intense salty flavor can cut through fatty meats like pork and some cuts of beef. When using samphire be sure to adjust your seasoning accordingly otherwise it can make dishes far too salty.