That’s Bloody Brilliant: Samphire

A friend from the States asked the other day what my favorite thing about London has been so far. It felt like a rookie answer, what I told her — something a person would say if she didn’t really know anything yet. But it was the truth. “How brand-new everything feels,” I said. A funny thing to say about a two thousand year-old city.

Nothing compares to the feeling of synapses firing like your own personal cadre of mad little minions with every step you take. Being somewhere new makes you feel both smarter and dumber at the same time, which is exhausting in its own right. On the one hand, it’s a lazy scholar’s paradise, with a steep and effortless learning curve. But on the other hand, it’s sort of like going about your usual business — at the grocery store, on the subway, crossing the street — after having downed two or three shots of cheap tequila. In the broad light of mid-morning. On a Monday. You approach your day with relative confidence. How hard could buying a few ingredients for dinner be, especially for someone as AWESOME as you are? (Oh wait, I forgot — we’re not actually drunk on cheap tequila. Scratch the awesomeness thing.)

But before you know it, you’re stepping on your own flip-flop heels in the middle of the grains aisle at Budgens, with four employees surrounding you. All five of you are scratching your heads, trying to figure out whether porridge oats or pinhead oats have anything to do with the steel-cut oats you’re looking for. And you’re scratching your head a little extra hard, because doesn’t the leading brand of steel-cut oats in the States come from Ireland, for the love of god?

Just when you start to think it’s all pinheads and puzzled salespeople (or hold on, were those security guards surrounding you in a tight circle, maybe?), you happen upon something that’s new and unknown in a love-at-first-sight kind of way. Something like samphire — a crisp, salty summer vegetable that grows at the edges of marshland in England and on both coasts of the United States (among numerous other places I could have run into it in the past, but didn’t). The minute I saw it on the shelf, I knew it was something special. I knew we would have a moment, samphire and me. I knew that samphire by any other name would taste as salty. (And it’s a darn good thing, too, because samphire has a string of aliases. Salicornia, sea beans, saltwort and glasswort, to name just a few. Just to totally confuse matters, though, marsh samphire is not the same as rock samphire, a different plant entirely.)

Isn’t it just like me to fall head over heels for a marsh vegetable?

In late summer, if you’re lucky, you may be able to find samphire at your local fish market or farmers’ market — or, in the U.K., even at your local grocery store if you pick one that’s a little on the funky and bi-curious side.  And if you’re the adventurous type, you can pick it right out of the marshlands or grow it in your garden. Samphire is quite salty, so don’t add extra salt. (And that’s coming from someone who used to dream of having a deer-style salt lick in her room as a kid.) Once it’s home, eat it within a day or two if you can, cooked just fleetingly, as in the recipe below.

{P.S. If you pay a lot of attention, you may have noticed that I changed the title of this post after publishing it. I’m starting a new feature called “That’s Bloody Brilliant” for — as I would have said in New Jersey — all the totally awesome stuff I learn about in the U.K. I just wasn’t quite bloody brilliant enough myself to figure this out ahead of time.}

Want to learn more about marsh samphire? Check out:


  • We have these little gems at our market every so often – they call them sea beans. Love their salty taste and crisp little snap when you bite into them. Last time (and only time) I made them I lightly sauteed with a little olive oil and garlic, tasty!ReplyCancel

    • I can’t get enough, and I just discovered them at what I think is the end of the season here. Something to look forward to for next year….ReplyCancel

  • Please don’t tell me you actually found samphire of all things at Budgens. Otherwise I’m going to have to doubt my memories of just about all my food shopping experiences. (Getting used to the grocery stores–oh yes. So much does not make sense, though I’m sure the reverse would be true here). I have had samphire once (such a better name than saltwort) here in Boston and I really liked it. The Zuni Cafe cookbook has a lot of discussion of it (which is where I first heard of it and why I jumped when I saw it on the menu that one time).ReplyCancel

    • Sara, I’m sorry, I really did find samphire at Budgens — the one in Belsize Park. It’s like eight steps from our house, so we go there pretty often when we don’t have the wherewithal to travel. I did recently say that it made me want to cry, but honestly they have a surprising amount of decent local produce these days for relatively cheap. I think of it as a glorified convenience store, give or take the glory depending on my mood. :) Glad to have it there for a pinch, in any case.

      Can’t believe I didn’t notice samphire in the Zuni Cafe cookbook. Yet another reason that I can hardly wait to be reunited with our sea cargo on Friday!ReplyCancel

  • Nanners

    It seems that the “other country experience” takes a giant step southeast when you go into the grocery store or pharmacy with a specific objective in mind. Personal Worst: Looking for tampons in Tokyo. There is NO hand gesture for this which is acceptable. Hand jestures. The best you can hope for is the help of a kind, patient, imaginative person who can suppress her howling until you ‘re back on the sidewalk.ReplyCancel

  • […] series That’s Bloody Brilliant, discussing all things British and edible. Read the first post here.Okay, I’m not gonna lie. This post might get a little bit touristy on your arses. I finally […]ReplyCancel

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