Marsh samphire – a losing battle with tides, mud & geese

Few foods are as hard-won as the marsh samphire, and after another tough season, this may well be our last.

Few foods are as hard-won as the marsh samphire that my son and his friends are foraging from the mud flats of the Erme estuary. This marsh was reclaimed from the sea using a sea wall, reputedly built by Napoleonic prisoners of war. It became prized grazing land – until the wall was breached in a storm 40 years ago. The fields were flooded, killing the grass, hedges, and oaks, and initiating an ecological succession that culminated in a thriving range of salt-tolerant (halophytic) plants.

Marsh samphire (not to be confused with the harsher-tasting rock samphire which grows on rocks and shingle above high tide) grows in the upper part of the tidal zone. It emerges from tiny seeds in the spring, and is ready to harvest by about mid-June. By late July, its core becomes tough as it prepares to flower and seed. The marsh is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, overseen by Natural England, who grant us permission to forage limited quantities, leaving 95% to set seed for following years. Further up the flats, we also forage for the herb sea purslane – if the geese have not beaten us to it. Both plants have a succulent, salty flavour, making them a great accompaniment to eggs, lamb, or buttery new potatoes.

Having checked the moon phase and the resulting tide heights and times, the marsh is approached through steep, tick-infested woods. On the bank, the pickers strip down to their shorts, T-shirts, and sun hats. Opinions are split as to the most mud-resilient footwear; wellies are soon lost in the sucking mud, while socks offer some protection but quickly wear out. The hardcore crew have mostly settled on wetsuit booties. Harvesting is done with scissors or small garden shears, a spoonful at a time. On a good day, a skilled, flexible, nimble-fingered picker may pick 30kg, before being driven off the marsh by the incoming tide. The back-breaking, messy, and fiddly work is, to some extent, compensated by the tranquillity, wildlife, and sometimes eerie views through the skeletal oaks and mists of the marsh.

This has been a tough season – and I sense that it may be my son’s last. When, at my age, he tells his grandchildren the tale, no one will believe that people actually did that stuff. Wild marsh samphire and sea purslane will be available to add to your box for the next two or three weeks, after which I suspect they will be consigned to food history.

Riverford.co.uk

3 Comments

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  1. It’s a huge privilege to have the opportunity to sample these tasty plants. Thank you for this insight into the incredible effort that goes into harvesting them.

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  2. Thank you for the opportunity to sample such hard won plants. It would be sad to see them disappear but I had no real idea of the skill and effort involved.

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  3. I’ve just eaten a lovely simple meal of the Fresh Flour Fettuccine, loosened after cooking with Riverford’s olive oil (from Jose ‘Pepe’ Aguilera), with the (still very tender) samphire from last week’s delivery cooked for a few minutes afterwards in the same pasta water, topped with scrambled eggs (made with Brue Valley butter). Thank you Riverford, for invading my life. I wouldn’t have it any other way!

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