Samphire – Treasure From The Erme Estuary

Samphire – the name itself sounds so precious doesn’t it? So close to sapphire and to me it has the same sense of elusiveness and mystery. It doesn’t always go by this name. The French call it “sampiere” after Saint Pierre, the patron saint of fishermen. It is also called “sea asparagus” or “sea pickle”. In Norfolk it’s known as “sampha” and in North Wales, especially along the River Dee’s marshes, it has always been known as “sampkin”.

There are two types of samphire

Rock Samphire grows on the rocky UK coastline which is sprayed with sea water. I have never had this variety but it is supposed to be rather horrible in both taste and smell despite the pretty white flowers that grow off it.

Marsh Samphire has bright, almost luminous green stalks, which look a little like teeny asparagus shooting out of the ground. This is the samphire I was invited to learn about by the team at Riverford a few weeks ago.

Samphire shooting from erme estuary

Samphire shooting from Erme estuary

A stroke of luck when an ancient  wall broke

We met at Great Orcheton Farm which is run by Chris and Diana Miller and is Modbury in Devon near Riverford itself. The farm sits on 200 acres and includes a 70 acre section of coastal land and the Erme Estuary which were until recently protected by an ancient wall dating back to the 1800s. Sadly seven years ago the wall was damaged and water from the sea flooded onto the meadow which at the time was being used for cattle grazing. It was decided by the powers that be, that the wall would not be rebuilt but instead the land be allowed to flood as the tide saw fit and it is now classed as a Site of Specific Interest. At the time the family had no idea that samphire would start sprouting up and as the Miller brothers told us, “it was just a lovely surprise”.


The glorious view of Erme Estuary from the rocky trail down

It floods about twice a day at high tide and when the tide is out the family have about five hours to collect the samphire. I thought it would be pulled out root and all but like asparagus it is cut – snipped with a sharp pair of scissors in fact. In the hour or so that we were there I managed to gather about 200g worth but the pro team manage about 50-60kg a day and are capped at 200g per week to ensure the land remains protected and not over farmed.

It was such pleasant work. Reminded me of picking rice in the paddy fields of Japan long ago when I lived there. I imagine it’s pretty back breaking work for those who need to do it daily but they are rewarded with the stunning, desert-like scenery of the estuary every day. Beats high rise flats and motorways. Teamwork was the name of the game for my girls who filled a large foodbag between them and ate it all on the way back up to the farm.

amber and amy on the estuary collecting samphire

On a mission to collect the most

And as for their ‘commute’ to the cool, sun-trapped site? Let’s just say that I would swap stinky tube trains for a rocky trail sandwiched by wild garlic, bluebells and wildflowers. This too has remained largely unchanged for centuries.


Walking down to the Erme Estuary

wild garlic

The bonus of wild garlic on the path down

Samphire is at its best right now

Samphire is at it’s best in July and August. Look for bright shoots. The ones I picked were short but it does get to about 6 inches or so in length. Prepare it with a good wash under cold water – having said that I rather enjoyed eating it straight out of the ground – I am convinced it was sweeter than I have ever tasted before.

Super easy to cook and not bad for your health either

There is really not much cooking skills needed either – simply steam it and then add lashings of butter. Or you could douse it in a nutty olive oil and sprinkle over some cracked black pepper.  Or simply toss it into some fresh leaves and herbs like this wonderful salad we had at The Riverford Field Kitchen.

samphire, salad

Salad of Samphire, Radish, Cucumber and Tomato with Piccalilli Dressing

It is abundant with goodness. Vitamins A, B and C as well as folic acid. It’s said to improve digestion and cleanse the liver. To be honest, because it tastes so fresh and healthy – even with that slight salty tang – it just feels like a great thing to eat!

You can get samphire in Riverford veg boxes right now or look out for it at your local fishmonger.  Here’s a fab little video on BBC Food about the day with some great recipes at the end.

Do you like samphire? How do you eat it? 

12 responses to “Samphire – Treasure From The Erme Estuary

  1. What a lovely trip, looks and sounds brilliant! We once waded in mud in an estuary in the Gower, Wales to gather samphire. We got very muddy but had a delicious dinner later, with fresh caught from a nearby beach. Just flounder I think, but so fresh, it was delicious.


  2. Lucky you! Super post Urvashi. Coincidentally I will probably be encountering some samphire – if I’m lucky – this weekend when I go on a seashore foraging day. I will now have some clever clogs info already! PS I like samphire with smoked tofu and shiitake mushrooms for breakfast. A big squeeze of lemon on it. Mmm. The above Riverford image looks like hollandaise. Now *that* would be good!


  3. Beautiful post! I feel transported. And envious. How utterly lovely!


  4. Our lovely local fish shop often has samphire on sale. We just boil it lightly and serve with fish of the day.
    Rock samphire is actually rather lovely, we ate it at l’Enclume on one visit.


  5. Pingback: A Lesson on Garlic Growing on the South West Garlic Farm | The Botanical Baker

  6. I live near here … It’s definitely not Buckfastleigh, which is probably about 25 miles away and on the non tidal part of the River Dart on the edge of the moor. Strangely enough a similar article appeared in the Telegraph a few weeks before and made the same mistake.


  7. Pingback: Lunch at The Riverford Field Kitchen | The Botanical Baker

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