June 29th is St. Peter’s day and how better to celebrate than with a feast of sea bass and samphire?
First of all, “What the heck is samphire?”
Originally called “sampiere“, a corruption of the French “Saint Pierre” (St Peter), samphire was named for the patron saint of fishermen because it grows in rocky salt-sprayed regions along the sea coast of northern Europe or in its coastal marsh areas.
Marsh samphire ashes were used to make soap and glass (hence its other old English name, “glasswort.”) In the 14th century glassmakers located their workshops near regions where this plant grew, since it was so closely linked to their trade. The plants were dried, then burnt, and it was the ash, with its high soda content, that went into glass-making. Samphires of all kinds have long been eaten in England. The leaves were gathered early in the year and pickled or eaten in salads with oil and vinegar.
This was a popular vegetable in Shakespeare’s time:
‘There is a cliff whose high and bending head looks fearfully in the confined deep…….The crows and choughs that wing the midway air scarce so gross as beetles; halfway down hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!’. – Shakespeare, King Lear
“. . . . went to the Hoop Tavern, and (by a former agreement) sent for Mr. Chaplin, who with Nicholas Osborne and one Daniel came to us and we drank off two or three quarts of wine, which was very good; the drawing of our wine causing a great quarrel in the house between the two drawers which should draw us the best, which caused a great deal of noise and falling out till the master parted them, and came up to us and did give us a large account of the liberty that he gives his servants, all alike, to draw what wine they will to please his customers; and we did eat above 200 walnuts. About 10 o’clock we broke up and so home, and in my way I called in with them at Mr. Chaplin’s, where Nicholas Osborne did give me a barrel of samphire, and showed me the keys of Mardyke Fort.” – The Diary of Samuel Pepys – 21 September, 1660
Samphire isn’t really a seaweed, but it does grow in the tidal zone, on muddy, sandy flats, often around estuaries and tidal creeks. It’s a succulent plant of the salicornia species, and looks like a miniature cactus, though without the spines. It has a satisfying crunch (you can eat young samphire raw) and takes on a salty tang from its habitat. As a vegetable, it’s delicious and unique and now, fearsomely trendy.
You can even gather it yourself, so if you’re visiting the coast in the coming weeks, you should look out for it. Simply pinch out or snip off the tops of the plants, leaving the more fibrous stems in the ground; that way, not only will you have less washing and trimming to do, there’s also a fair chance that what you’ve left in the mud will continue to grow.
I bought both samphire and sea bass from the fishmonger ‘Fishes’ in the St. Thomas precinct in Exeter.
Probably Definitely the best!
Caught this morning in Looe, Cornwall
Sea bass fillets with tomato and olive oil
- 2 large ripe tomatoes
- 6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
- 1 tsp dried chilli flakes, or a chopped fresh chilli
- Half a glass of white wine or dry white vermouth
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 fillets of sea bass
Place the tomatoes in a bowl of boiling water and leave for about 10 seconds. Drain, then slip off the skins, cut the tomatoes in half and scoop out the seeds. Dice the flesh into pea-sized pieces.
Heat the oil in a wide, shallow pan, and add the garlic, parsley and chilli. Cook for two minutes, then add the tomato and cook for another two minutes. Add the wine, raise the heat and bubble for two minutes. Season with salt and pepper, lower the heat, and lay the sea bass fillets, skin side up, in the pan. Cover and cook for five minutes.
Serve the fillets, skin side down, with the sauce poured over them.
- 300g samphire, tough stalks trimmed leaving the tender sprigs
- A knob of unsalted butter
- Juice of ¼ a lemon
- Freshly ground black pepper
Rinse the samphire in plenty of water as it is very salty. Steam it for 3-5 minutes until just tender and hot. Toss the samphire in a bowl with the butter, lemon juice and freshly ground black pepper. Serve or keep warm until ready to serve.
This was a very speedy meal to prepare. I boiled some new potatoes and at the last minute decided to make some aÏoli sauce. The recipes I looked at were for a garlic-infused made from scratch mayonnaise, so I decided to hack this together using Hellman’s.
Quick aÏoli sauce
- Pinch of saffron threads
- 1 tablespoon boiling water
- ½ cup/115 grams Hellman’s mayonnaise
- 1-2 cloves garlic, mashed through a press
Pour the water over the saffron. Let stand for about 5 minutes. Stir in the mayonnaise and garlic. That’s all there is to it!