A wild and salty secret of Britain's seashores

Samphire is one of our last uncultivated foods, but gathering it is a tricky business.
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Peter Jordan positively drools at the thought of his first samphire- picking expedition of the year: "My grandfather was a real enthusiast for any food that was free and he taught me to appreciate the wonderful flavours of wild crops - samphire is one of the best."

Today Mr Jordan runs a wild mushroom business, but as a former pub landlord and restaurateur he is well placed to expand on its virtues. "Samphire is particularly good with fish," he says. "But for me it is best lightly steamed, sauted with finely chopped potato and crab and then liquidised with cream to produce a delicately flavoured soup. When I ran a pub I couldn't make enough of the stuff."

For those unfamiliar with the vivid green shoots that are starting to appear in profusion along much of our coast, the delicate, salty taste of samphire is the perfect accompaniment to fish. The fleshy forked stems of this relative of the parsley are often compared with asparagus, but unlike the latter, samphire is still uncultivated. As a result, supplies still have to be gathered by hand from the seashore, making it - with the possible exception of mushrooms - the last wild crop to be commercially exploited in Britain.

Not surprisingly the trade is an old one, with samphire having been harvested for centuries not only as a food but also as a source of chemicals. Until the last century huge quantities were collected and burnt to produce an ash particularly rich in sodium. This formed an important raw material in the manufacture of soap and glass - hence samphire's alternative name of glasswort.

Today the trade is continued by a handful of fishermen and shore workers who supplement their summer income by picking the green flush springing up from the coastal mud. These part-time pickers are reluctant to discuss their activities because the income is rarely mentioned to the tax man. In addition, there's a legal question. Although, unlike much of our native flora, gathering samphire is not specifically banned under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, its marshland habitat is frequently protected. "Most people are careful about picking samphire now," says John Griffin, manager of Gurney's fishmongers in North Norfolk's Burnham Market. "Almost all the coast round here is part of some nature reserve or another and there's a pounds 200 fine if you're caught with more than a couple of pounds without a permit," he says.

In fact, although a handful of professionals apply for licences, many pickers regard the rules as an infringement of their traditional shore rights and flout them. A more important reason for the reticence, however, is their instinctive reluctance to reveal the secrets of what is effectively money for a freely available plant. "I don't want to give away my tricks - if I do everyone will be at it," explains one picker.

His fears seem a little unrealistic, however, in spite of the high prices charged by many fishmongers. "The best beds are in muddy creeks, so you either need a boat or have to put on waders up to your armpits," says Mr Griffin. "I can't imagine many of my customers wanting to do either."

Even so, because of the profusion of samphire growing locally, he doesn't feel able to ask for more than pounds 1.10 per pound. But in London, the unusual and delicate flavour commands a premium price tag. Islington fishmonger Steve Hatt, for example, charges pounds 1.75 per half-pound bag - a figure that makes Norfolk locals collapse with mirth.

In addition to the difficulties of obtaining a regular legal supply, one excuse for the high prices is the extremely variable nature of the crop. This is largely dependent on spring rainfall - which explains why this year's harvest is abnormally late. "Usually we'd start selling samphire in early June, but this year it's three weeks behind," says Mr Griffin.

From now on, however, he expects to do a roaring trade with the growing number of gastronomically adventurous holiday makers, although he says the backbone of demand still comes from local pensioners. "The older folk have eaten it all their lives and love it - they look forward to the first samphire of the year just as much as the first new potato or the first strawberry," he says.