Tracing the Muddy Roots of Samphire, Norfolk’s Beloved Sea Vegetable

For hundreds of years, locals on the north Norfolk coast have foraged the salt marshes for samphire to sell outside their houses or eat with seafood and butter.

11 September 2018, 9:52am

North Norfolk boasts the largest expanse of salt marsh in the country and with it, Britain’s best supply of samphire. For hundreds of years, locals have foraged the crisp sea vegetable from the mud to sell outside their houses or eat with seafood and butter. Pronounced “sam-fer,” rather than the phonetic “sam-fire” heard outside the region, Norfolk samphire is a far-cry from the expensive dish popular in posh London restaurants and sometimes on sale in supermarkets, where it is often flown in from Israel or Mexico.

As a child, I used to get covered in mud picking samphire in the marshes around Stiffkey when I visited my grandparents, who lived nearby. Unused to the beautiful bleakness of the vast marshes, which are made a maze by deep creeks, I remember feeling both excited to be somewhere so wild and frightened of what might happen if the tide came in. When we made it home, cold, tired, and satisfied, we’d eat our haul boiled and with butter, dragging the flesh off with our teeth to reveal the skeletal stalk underneath it.

Samphire grows wild along the north Norfolk coast. All photos by the author.
Stiffkey salt marshes.

After a summer of seeing rather insipid samphire tips on sale in Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, and Tesco, I decide to trace the plant back to its muddy, East Anglian roots.

In the small town of Wells-next-the-Sea, I meet award-winning local chef Jeremy Parke, who runs seafood restaurant Season with his wife Rachael. Parke is currently competing to be Norfolk Chef of the Year and in the last round, he cooked a dish that included foraged samphire, sea purslane, and sea beet.

Jeremy Parke, owner of seafood restaurant Season in Wells-next-the-Sea.

Parke, who regularly serves local samphire in his restaurant when it is in season from June to September, explains that he usually buys the sea vegetable from the same local fishermen who supply Season with fresh lobster. Sometimes on his days off, he picks it himself. It’s also not uncommon for his staff to turn up in the morning or back from their lunch breaks with a couple of bags of samphire they foraged from the marsh just outside.

In general, samphire is very easy to get hold of in towns and villages along the north Norfolk coast, where people who live backing on to the marsh often sell it outside their houses to tourists and passers-by. Fishmongers also stock it.

Samphire fries with butter.

Godfrey Sayers, who has lived in the area all his life and made a living selling mussels and samphire until he retired, explains that samphire gathering is a key part of the “long sure economy,” a term used to describe a variety of different seasonal activities—including collecting mussels and cockles; fishing; ferrying; and reed-cutting—that together constitute a livelihood for local people.

“Local people have always gathered samphire,” he says, “it’s a part of their traditional rights.”

When I visit at the end August, many sellers say the samphire had already “gone woody,” which marks the end of the season, but Parke shows me fresh picked samphire that is still green and tender, so I decide to try my luck foraging it.

Both Parke and Sayers warn of dangerous tides and recommend that tourists don’t wander out onto the marsh by themselves. Sayers says holidaymakers seem to intuit how dangerous it can be, with much of the marsh going underwater at high tide and the creeks making it easy to get stranded. However, samphire is pretty easy to find even near the paths, and I’m careful to check the tides.

Maybe I am lucky, but despite warnings to the contrary, I find samphire everywhere and still supple enough to eat the tips raw. Taking care not to disturb the wildlife, I manage to fill a carrier bag but quickly forget my purpose, instead enjoying the unique, almost lunar landscape of the marshes bathed in orange evening light. Boats lull abandoned in the shrubbery and I find the skull and spine of a harbour seal amidst the plants.

While the consensus on the coast seems to be that foraging samphire is a normal and harmless part of daily life, some conservation groups want people to leave Norfolk’s samphire alone, arguing that picking it is a threat to the environment and rare birdlife.

A member of staff at one conservation organisation, who agrees to speak anonymously about what he described as a “very sensitive issue,” tells me that while samphire-gathering is a “respected part of local culture,” it needs to be better better managed. “A lot of samphire meadows are just completely cleared by the time they’re close to being fully grown,” he says, “and that’s local people doing it, too.”

He takes a harder line on commercial samphire-gathering by people who want to sell it on a large scale outside the region, describing this as a real problem. “Part of the issue with [illegal] commercial samphire-gathering is they clear massive areas,” he says. “They often come from outside. To take as much as they can they often take quad bikes and motorbikes out on the marsh, which can be devastating to wildlife”.

Sayers, however, is sceptical of the conservation groups. He acknowledges that increased demand for samphire in recent years may have put some pressure on the supply, but finds it difficult to see how the sort of gathering currently taking place could have a significant impact on the species or the marsh. Samphire is an annual plant, he explains, which means it completes its full life cycle and dies completely in a single season, so picking it won’t have an impact as long as there is enough left on the marsh to seed.

“Every year it all comes back exactly the same as last year regardless of what was gathered this year,” he argues, “it will be all fresh samphire next year.”

Samphire with poached egg and black pepper.

Back in Wells, I visit Season at the tale-end of a busy Friday night service.

A few years ago, Parke says, samphire became slightly harder to find, perhaps because of commercial gathering. Season is always careful to source the vegetable sustainably, he says, however this year was a good year for the plant with no supply problems, probably due to the hot and early summer.

Parke shows me how to cook samphire by boiling it for three minutes, refreshing it to prevent over-cooking, and then popping it in a pan to flash fry with butter and black pepper. He serves it with a poached egg, suggesting the dish could be a light brunch. Samphire, which is crisp, salty and tastes like the sea, is also good with lobster, he explains, putting together a second more complex dish.

Back in London with nearly two kilograms of samphire, I hand it out to friends—some of whom have never tried it before and have no idea it was possible to pick it—and copy Parke’s brunch recipe and also try frying the samphire with sea bass, butter, and lemon. I eat little else for four days.