I made the acquaintance of the rock samphire, Crithmum maritimum L., when I was a child, playing with the sand and climbing on the reefs.
At a first glance it almost seemed a Kalanchoe, a semi-succulent plant, but crumpled between my fingers it immediately made itself known for that pungent and unmistakable scent that would have accompanied me until the evening, indelible on my soft skin.
Rock samphire should not be confused with marsh samphire (genus Salicornia).
English samphire derives from sampiere, from French samphire (mid 16th century), “herbe de Saint Pierre” – that is “St Peter(’s herb)” -.
This name because St Peter is the patron saint of fishermen, who often harvested the plant.
In Italian it is called (s)paccasassi, meaning it breaks rock, or also in dialect bacicci, but mostly is known with its common name of sea fennel or critmo from the botanical binomial name.
It belongs to the same family of fennel, to which it is similar, Umbelliferae.
It lives on the coasts, among the cracks of the rocks, the old walls encrusted with salt or on the ruins, as long as exposed to sea water.
It should not be confused with the corky-fruited water-dropword, Œnanthe pimpinelloides L., of which only leaves are edible, often used as a seasoning for soups.
Traditionally used to make soda, today rock samphire has been rediscovered in the kitchen.
The plant is entirely edible, but mainly leaves and flowers are eaten, foraged in May and June; seeds too, to be harvested in August and September.
Its leaves are rich in vitamin C, so much that sailors, devoted to St Peter, used them to fight scurvy and for this virtue they considered rock samphire a protective charm: hence the name of St Peter’s grass.
In summer, fresh flowers are delicious in salads and excellent with fish.
Seeds, instead, stimulate appetite and digestion; they can flavour baked food, both savoury and sweet, but also used in several kinds of tea.
I like to use them infused in vegetal milk, such as almond’s, to prepare an alternative and fragrant version of the classic panna cotta; and if you are on the coast with your camping gas stove you can easily prepare it with the help of a thickening agent like carrageenins, a seaweed you can easily find on UK shores.
In Apulia, South Italy, rock samphire is among the ingredients of very simple popular recipes, mostly preserved in vinegar or extra-virgin olive oil.
With my grandmother, who taught me to use this plant, we foraged its leaves and stems. We left them a few hours in the sun to dry, and after we cleaned them well with a cloth, filled a jar and covered with vinegar, “the good one” from a mother tracing back to our ancestors. After a couple of days rock samphire was ready, perfect as a seasoning or as it is, as an appetizer on sourdough bread roasted on the grill in the fireplace.
But I also remember the easiest way, the simplest yet effective, a magic: I remember as if it were yesterday a summer evening, the glass jar resting on a shelf of the pantry, flooded by the sunset light, ready to welcome the fragrant wild plant. My grandmother simply filled the jar with salted water, collected from the sea and filtered, diluted with water from the well. The only trick was that rock samphire needed to be under the level of water. She covered the jar with a cloth and after a couple of days it was ready.
You may want to try the simpler recipe, just with water – preferably not directly from the tap, it intereferes with fermentation, so let it rest for a night in a glass bottle before – and a tablespoon of sea salt. Just shake the jar with rock samphire in, let it stay away from heat for a couple of days, and it’s ready.
You can ferment it alone, or add a bit of wild garlic (leaves will work), or parsley.
Rock samphire in LAB (lacto-acid bacteria) is extremely good for your gut: recent studies have demonstrated that probiotics and prebiotics developing in the process of fermentation help to heal issues linked to digestion and enhance properties of the plant/food involved. In this case, vitamin C will be easily available and will raise your immune system defense by eating something awesome!
Last but not least, you can also blanch just foraged rock samphire in unsalted boiling water, and then simply season it with oil and lemon juice. It is usually served as a side dish, but also to season cold pasta or boiled potatoes.
© Eleonora Matarrese – La Cuoca Selvatica
© fotografie Vito Buono
Pikniq is the first and only restaurant in Italy to offer plant-based wild food, foraged in the right places and following recipes of tradition and our ancestors.
It is also a bed and breakfast in the woods near the lake of Como.