Once in a school French lesson, for a module in which we were asked to explain what there was dans ta région qui peut intéresser les touristes, we had to explain what regional foods they could sample. With great enthusiasm I attempted to discuss the samphire du Norfolk — which no one else in the room had heard of, and which I then failed to explain adequately to the teacher. Now samphire is a little bit trendy — which is annoying because probably I could now get marks for talking about it, instead of being forced into discussing poisson-frites.
Samphire (you can say samfer if you are from Norfolk) is still hyper-regional: it grows on the salty mudflats on the coast of Norfolk, in north Wales, and in France (the word for it there seems to be salicorne or sometimes saint-pierre), but in the places where it grows it’s not confined to the menus of high-end restaurants. Growing up, I was encouraged to snap branches of it off when walking on the beach and just chew on it straight from the marshes, scraping the flesh off the woody stems with my teeth. It’s a wonderful plant to look at, like a miniaturised, knobbly, smooth-skinned saguaro cactus, and it can seem from a distance as thick as grass. It’s succulent, crunchy, and of course very salty.
It has a long history and even shows up in King Lear — in the scene where Edgar is pretending to the blind Gloucester that they are on the edge of a cliff, he adds in a samphire-picker to make the description more convincing:
Come on, sir; here’s the place: stand still. How fearfulAnd dizzy ’tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!The crows and choughs that wing the midway airShow scarce so gross as beetles: half way downHangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!
This is rock samphire, a slightly different species from the marsh samphire which is usually available. But gathering samphire can still be “dreadful” — it likes deep mud.
Misinformation on cooking it is rife. I’ve seen instructions to cook it for ten minutes, which is far too long; five should be enough. Classically, you treat it like asparagus — dip it in melted butter, with a poached egg on the side. The one thing you don’t want to add is more salt in any form. The texture starts to deteriorate if you keep it too long after picking, and leaving it in fresh water too long will make it go slimy. It is sometimes billed as “sea asparagus”, “poor man’s asparagus”, or even “sea beans”. It is hardly comparable and except on the coast by no means cheap.
Samphire is one of the very few sea vegetables which we routinely eat in the UK. Another is dulse, a pinkish-coloured seaweed, which in Ireland is dried into flakes and baked as savoury morsels into bread, or crisped and eaten as a snack: it’s often compared to bacon, for its salty-umami chewiness. There is also purple laver, which cooked into a pulp becomes the Welsh staple laverbread, normally sold tinned. (You will have better luck shopping for seaweed online, or in a speciality Asian supermarket, than in your local Tesco.)
Optimistically billed as “Welshman’s caviar”, laver is initially disconcerting to eat — gelatinous, soft, savoury. As well as the classic lavercakes (mix laverbread with oatmeal and fry in bacon fat), Florence White’s 1932 Good Things In England (republished by Persephone, £13) recommends stewing laverbread with butter and Seville orange juice “as an adjunct to roast mutton”, or dressing it as a salad with oil, vinegar and pepper. Jane Grigson’s English Food (Penguin, £12.99) similarly recommends a laverbread sauce for roast meats: heat up laverbread with the juice and peel of an orange; add lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. To her, it has “a hint of oysters” — which gets to the heart of the appeal of seaweed: umami. Seaweed is the purest iteration of umami — the fifth taste, the savoury taste, was originally isolated from konbu, the dried kelp which is used to make dashi, the foundational soup stock of Japanese cooking.
Florence White says of laver that “we English folks do not know our wealth”. Jane Grigson mentions that Alexis Soyer made laverbread “a smart society dish” for a while.The UK has a large coastline and a lot of seaweed, so why don’t we eat more of it? It just hasn’t spread beyond the coasts. Another species of purple laver in Japan becomes nori, the toasted papery dried seaweed sheets used to wrap sushi. The first step in making nori is almost exactly like making laverbread: the laver is cooked into a pulp. My suspicion is that we don’t make the most of sea vegetables because we had other, easier sources of umami — the cuisines of some other countries, such as Japan, grew up around historic limitations on eating meat. Sea vegetables are a useful — and vegan — source of savouriness. Seaweed comes out well environmentally, too: it doesn’t use fresh water and sucks its nutrients directly from the sea. Around 70 per cent of our oxygen comes from marine plants: kelp is carbon negative.
The flipside of this is the spectre of “wellness” which lurks with any food that becomes fashionable; bloggers trying to persuade you of the benefits of bladderwrack tea. (This is the seaweed with bubbles which you often see washed up on beaches. Less than appealing.) But it is easy to avoid that: go for Sichuan-style kelp salad, in chunky squarish shreds, with chilli dressing (at the Silk Road restaurant in Camberwell), and the the soft ribbons of wakame in miso soup, the crunchy sheet of nori toasted over the gas flame to have on the side of a noodle soup — and steamed samphire with a poached egg.