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Samphire

Don't mind getting muddy?  Go samphire collecting.

"Half-way down

Hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade!" Shakespeare, King Lear.

Shakespeare's samphire grew half way down a cliff.  This was the rock samphire, Crithmum maritimum, but here we have marsh samphire, Salicornia europaea, (or one of half a dozen similar species) sometimes known as glasswort.  It emerges from the mud of the salt marsh in summer.  Bright green shoots, collect them when still very young and tender, just a few inches high.  Boil them but not for long, they're best eaten almost raw.  Some recommend standing it upright in a pot with just a little boiling water so it cooks in its own steam.

The plant is high in sodium carbonate and its name, glasswort, comes from its ancient use in the glass industry.  Burning the plant released the sodium more easily that obtaining it from common salt until the introduction of Leblanc's process of obtaining soda from sodium chloride in 1806 at Walker, Tyneside.  It was also used as a soda source in soap making, but soapwort is something else.  The plants were gathered and burned in heaps and the ash fused with sand to make glass, or for better glass, the ash was leached with lime water to make a solution of caustic soda, evaporated and then added to the silica. Mixed with animal fats it was used to make soap. Domestic production was supplemented by imports from Spain and North Africa.  Anyway, everyone calls it samphire round here now. Salicornia belongs to the same family, Chenopodiaceae, as beetroot and spinach.

British Species of Salicornia:

Salicornia dolichostachya
Salicornia europaea
Salicornia fragilis
Salicornia nitens
Salicornia obscura
Salicornia ramosissima

Long-spiked Glasswort
Common Glasswort
Yellow Glasswort
Shiny Glasswort
Glaucous Glasswort
Purple Glasswort

How about an environmental impact analysis of eating samphire?  Here's what the Wash and North Norfolk Coast European Marine Site: Case Study(pdf. format) had to say:

"Traditional activities, including common rights, such as samphire gathering, bait digging and wildfowling are widely recognized by English Nature and the other relevant authorities as a particularly important aspect of the local culture and economy in the Wash and North Norfolk Coast European marine site. These activities are generally seasonal in nature, localised in their occurrence, employ traditional methods and place a strong emphasis on the principles of sustainability. Sound management of these activities over many years is considered to have contributed to the long-term maintenance of the site's condition. It is thought such activities, including the common rights on the north Norfolk coast between Holme and Holkham as currently and historically practiced under common law, are compatible and linked with the principle aims of the site, i.e. the long term maintenance of the condition of the interest features."

Which probably means that if you snip a few bunches with a pair of scissors, not uprooting it, for your own tasty meal in the way your ancestors have traditionally done since time immemorial you won't be subject to the potential £20 000 fine for harming the flora in a SSSI.  But if you are planning to ship truckloads out to supply the restaurant trade...go away and import the stuff from Eritraea.

Here's a nice description of how to eat it from the good people of Cley-next-the-Sea.  

Salicornia is curiously rich in oils and protein and is being grown commercially in the Middle East for its oil and as a livestock fodder in salty places where little else will grow.

Tide table or Alternatively  

 

Samphire

by William Logan

 

Girls from the language schools go chittering

in birdlike tongues, thin-breasted, doe-eyed,

Spanish or Italian, full of hormones, angst, vocabulary.

 

You caught me eyeing a Swede with bee-stung lips,

Botticelli face in a virgin’s halo of blonde.

Her breasts spelled desire through her cotton shirt.

 

A summer ago we stood unhappy, ill through our bones,

not able to speak in the hail of argument

and never sure, after, if our non-arguments survived.

 

Is aphasia the rain shower against speech,

or loss of memory of speech, the unspoken

burning in half-life longer than what surfaces?

 

I’m grateful for what you have chosen to ignore.

This summer, hand in hand, we discover again

cowpath walks worming our medieval city,

 

further than ever and myriad ways not to return home.

In the market we buy tidal samphire, Shakespeare’s

drenched vegetable, or Gloucester’s, or Edgar’s,

 

bulbous, green and salty, stripped hot with the teeth,

and not Shakespeare’s after all, we learn by the book.

O vegetable love, a different vegetable entirely.

 

With thanks to New Criterion for permission to include this poem.

Copyright 2000 William Logan, first published by New Criterion.

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The Great North Road

İBiff Vernon 2002