Sometimes considered the poor version of marsh samphire, rock samphire is coming back into vogue as the former becomes more run of the mill in both UK restaurants and supermarkets. Produce Business UK runs through the facts to discover more about this protected plant and its usage
What it is: The ‘marmite’ of sea veg – rock samphire literally grows on rocks along the coast and people tend to either praise its virtues to the hilt or dismiss it as a good-for-nothing weed.
It’s harvested during the summer months, from May to September in England, Jersey, the Isle of Wight, Galloway and South Ayrshire. It also grows further afield in the Mediterranean, along the Atlantic coast of Europe and around the Black Sea.
Rock samphire blooms in little white-yellow flowers and although it does occasionally grow on the foreshore, it usually clings to coastal cliffs, sea defences and rocky outcrops, sometimes extending onto shingle foreshore.
It looks similar to marsh samphire, but it’s botanically unrelated, even though it sometimes shares the same habitat. Rock samphire is often confused with the marsh type and they can be harvested together, adding to the confusion.
Described as having a “rather unpleasant smell and flavour” by BBC Good Food, paradoxically a lot of chefs pay a high price for the fennel-like shoots.
Latin name: Crithmum maritimum.
Also known as: Sea fennel, sea asparagus, sea bean, sea pickle or crest marine.
Appearance: Belonging to the umbelliferae or apiaceae family of plants, which includes fennel, carrots and lovage, rock samphire looks a bit like carrot tops thanks to its straggly growth of antler-like, succulent fronds. Similar to marsh samphire, it is like mini-cacti but rich in aromatic oils.
A small shrubby perennial plant that grows to one foot tall, rock samphire has flat heads of yellow-green flowers and fleshy, long, divided leaves that give off a strong aroma when crushed.
Taste: Rock samphire has the same saltiness and crunch of marsh samphire, but with an intense and aromatic carrot or parsley taste. The plant has a warm, aromatic and somewhat sulphurous taste.
Harvesting: Because of the perilous places where it grows, foraging rock samphire can be dangerous and therefore foragers for restaurants can charge a high price. The parts collected are the fleshy leaves and stems, which are the fresh young growth. The older bits are stringy or woody. This specific strain can’t be commercialised – it has to be hand-picked, hand-washed and you can’t grow it inland. It needs salt air and to be splashed by the sea to acquire its flavour.
How it’s eaten: It’s eaten both raw and cooked, and can be preserved in brine. When bruised or broken, the leaves have a distinct, but pleasant aroma, of lemon oil. The raw leaves have a strong carroty taste and are great in salads.
Rock samphire seed pods can be found from August to October and can be pickled and used as a substitute for capers. The rock samphire flowers, which bloom from June to August, can be eaten but are usually a sign that the plant is past its best.
Nutrition: With similar properties to karalla, rock samphire can reduce flatulence, purify the blood and remove toxins from the body. It is thought to be good for a weight-loss diet and obesity. It has 30 times the vitamin C content of an orange.
Dishes: Pickled rock samphire was very popular in Victorian times and is still paired with quails eggs and the like. It can be boiled with fish, added to sushi and salads, or even used in cocktails with spirits, like Rock Samphire Gin.
History: Rock samphire was popular until the early 20th Century when it was regularly cut with the less tasty and easier to harvest marsh samphire. Strictly foraged, rather than cultivated, in the Middle Ages it also had medicinal uses.
The name “crithmum” is thought to derive from the Greek word for barley, as rock samphire seeds resemble the grain. The common English name derives from the French word ‘sampièr’, which is a corruption of ‘herbe de Saint Pierre’. Sailors named the plant after the patron saint of all things maritime because it could ward off scurvy.
More recently, coastal development and over-foraging have reduced the wild populations of rock samphire, so it has been a protected plant in Great Britain since 1971. It’s also listed as endangered in other parts of Europe, such as the Balearic Islands.
In the past, rock samphire was harvested in the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of Britain, and transported to London in casks of salt water to be sold on the street markets.
Chef fans: Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal, Richard Corrigan, Darren Millgate and Shaun Nielsen.
Foragers: Julia Schofield of Cornish Rock Samphire, expert forager David Harrison and Jeremy Strickland.
Did you know?: Rock samphire is thought to be the species mentioned by Shakespeare in King Lear.
There is a piece of land adjoining Dover that was created with earth excavated for the Channel Tunnel, which was named Samphire Hoe because rock samphire used to be harvested from the neighbouring cliffs.
It is also possible to buy frozen rock samphire.