Food: Food Stuff: Marsh fever

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Indy Lifestyle Online
A small green plant that grows in mud may not seem appetising, but samphire is proving so popular with chefs that a London food company has just started importing it from the Middle East so we can enjoy its unique texture during the winter months.

Samphire is traditionally found on the salt marshes of Norfolk and Suffolk from June onwards but due to the efforts of food specialists Taste of the Wild, chefs like Mark Raffan from Gravetye Manor in Sussex are currently able to serve it up to their customers.

"It's good to be able to have samphire on the menu for more than just a few months a year," says Mark. "I worked in Jordan for three years and I used it a lot then.

"Because it grows on the marshes it has a wonderful flavour - it really tastes of the sea. It's great for livening up a dish, particularly fish," he adds.

Another enthusiast is food writer Annie Bell, who devotes a whole chapter to samphire in her recently published Vegetable Book. She describes it as looking "as though it should be growing under water in the Little Mermaid".

Annie includes recipes for Fennel with Samphire, Samphire Blinis and Saffron Risotto with Samphire.

While you can eat young samphire fronds raw, Annie recommends that you blanch them for 30 seconds in boiling water. "It is not a vegetable that requires cooking as such," she says. "Its quality lies with its unique crunchy texture."

Although Mark warns against getting too carried away with the idea of using samphire.

"A little bit will enhance a dish beautifully but too much and you will kill the flavour of everything else," he explains.

Where to get your samphire

Taste of the Wild are currently selling Middle Eastern samphire from pounds 15 a kilo (telephone for info on 0171-498 5654). Sainsbury's will be stocking samphire from France in 50 stores from June and are also looking into the possibility of importing it from the Middle East.

Three things you may not know about samphire...

In this country traditionally samphire is ready for picking on the longest day of the year in June but you can actually find it from April through to October, although by August it starts to get a bit stringy.

Marsh samphire is different from rock samphire which still grows in this country on high cliffs. It was popular up until the nineteenth century and was often eaten pickled.

Once upon a time samphire was used in the manufacture of glass which accounts for its other common name, glasswort.

Samphire is currently on the menu at Gravetye Manor, Nr East Grinstead, West Sussex (01342 810567).

Annie Bell's Vegetable Book (Michael Joseph pounds 15) contains advice on buying and preparing samphire as well as recipes.

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