Easter 2007: Trout with almonds and samphire


20070407_almondtroutsamphire1As I said, over Easter Christina and I hit Borough Market for an extended shopping spree.  It is such a great time of year to be at the market as all the spring crops are just beginning to appear – the bunches of asparagus, the gorgeous artichokes, the wild garlic… and the marsh samphire. 

Now anybody raised more than ten miles from the English coastline will be forgiven for looking at me blankly at this point.  Samphire??  Isn't that some sort of semi-precious stone?!  Au contraire.  It's a fleshy green herb found along the coastal cliffs and marshes of Suffolk and and apparently we've been eating it for quite some time.  The name is a said to be a corruption of St Peter's herb and it even gets a Shakespearean mention in King Lear:

"Half-way down

Hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade!

Methinks he seems no bigger than his head:

The fishermen that walk upon the beach

Appear like mice."                                               King Lear, Act IV, scene 6

OK, so that's cheating just a little.  The samphire mentioned in King Lear is rock samphire or crithmum maritimum – the luckless gatherer is hanging halfway down a cliff collecting it, as this is where rock samphire or sea fennel prefers to grow.  The stuff I picked up from Borough, on the other hand, was marsh samphire or salicornia europaea (or one of a few similar species of salicornia).  It's also known as glasswort as it used to be used in glassmaking (yes, you read correctly!).  The plant is unusually rich in sodium carbonate and the in the 1700s the sodium (one of the principal ingredients in glass-making) was more easily released from the plant than from salt.  The plants were gathered into piles and burned, and the ash would fuse with the sand below to make glass.

Samphire has a short growing 20070407_samphire2_2season in the summer.  It appears in muddy saltmarshes as bright green shoots, consisting of fleshy segments rather like some sort of jointed cactus without thorns, and is best picked when young and tender.  It is a member of the halophyte (literally salt-loving) family – that is, a plant that can grow in salt water.  Now salt is not usually something plants can tolerate, so halophytes all have to have ways of dealing with the excess salt.  Some some salt-marsh plants secrete the salt on the surface of the leaves so that the leaves become covered with fine crystals.  But samphire moves the excess salt it takes from the soil into vacuoles in the stem tips, where it is contained behind a protective membrane.  This explains why it is so salty – the salt can't be washed off because it is actually stored inside the stems! When the salt content becomes too much, the end segment of the stem dies and drops off.  Because it is not commercially cultivated on a large scale in the UK, you are unlikely to see in outside of the area where it grows or specialised markets such as Borough or good fishmongers.  But at Ras al-Zawr on the northeastern coast of Saudi Arabia, some enterprising folk have started the first commercial scale cultivation of samphire.  As the plant contains edible proteins and more vegetable oils than soya beans, and can be irrigated entirely with seawater, it is a miracle crop for countries like Saudi Arabia where water is scarce.  Once processed it can be used to feed livestock, but plans are afoot to export the succulent tips to Europe as a gourmet ingredient.

So less a precious stone than a truly precious plant!

So how does it taste?  Unsuprisingly, very salty!  It is a bit like seaweed and oysters in that it has a rather appealing marine tang but it is a LOT saltier than either.  I love my salt and I found it salty…  I had heard it described as "poor man's asparagus" but I have to say I don't get this.  To me, it has a delightful crunchy texture that is more reminiscent of, say, nopalesAnd as for flavour… well, it tastes kind of green and salty!  But very pleasant nonetheless, and a perfect foil for simply prepared fish – like you'll find below.  Look out for samphire next time you go to market, or head to the coast and pick your own :)

20070407_almondtroutsamphire2ALMOND TROUT FILLETS WITH SAMPHIRE (serves 2)


2-3 trout fillets, skin on
salted butter
1/2 cup flaked almonds
a little flour for dusting
samphire – 2 or 3 large handfuls
lemon juice


Soak the samphire in a large bowl of fresh water for 1-3 hours, changing the water every half-hour or so (this is to reduce its saltiness).  I think mine got about 90 minutes – patience is not one of my many virtues! 

Rinse and dry the trout fillets.  If you have time, remove the fine bones with a pair of tweezers.  It sounds like a chore but it doesn't take that long and they are easy to find – all neatly arranged in a straight line with the ends sticking up for easy grabbing.

Toast the flaked almonds in a non-stick pan over moderate heat until they are starting to turn brown at the edges – watch them closely though because they burn easily!

Bring a large pot of fresh water to a rapid boil, dump the drained samphire in it and turn off the heat. 

Heat enough butter to generously cover the base of your frying pan.  Lightly dust the fish fillets with flour and when the butter is bubbling lay them, skin-side down, in the pan.  Cook for a minute or so, until the edges are pale pink and the centre of the fillet is still coral-coloured.  Flip them over and cook for a further 30 seconds. 

Plate the trout and drizzle each fillet with the butter left in the pan as well as a squirt of lemon juice.  Top each fillet with toasted almonds and serve beside the samphire.  You can drizzle the samphire with butter, but I just gave mine a squirt of lemon juice.  While all this was going on, I also roasted some new potatoes in the oven with olive oil, garlic and rosemary – you can see them in the background of my picture.

See what some other bloggers had to say about samphire here and here and here and here.

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  1. Ros says

    Usually I’m really sensitive to high salt content in food, whereas Goon loves itm, but with samphire it seems to be the other way around. He barely touched his portion whereas I gobbled up both!
    I’m surprised you don’t see the asparagus link… I thought it tasted a lot like salted, crunchy asparagus to me. But, then again, I’ve never tried the prickly pear plant you mentioned.
    I saw a samphire and king prawn risotto recipe (I think it was a Rick Stein one) somewhere which I’m dying to try soon.

  2. says

    My local fishmonger in Edinburgh (Eddies in Marchmont)sold these, but I was always scared to try. Maybe I’ll look them up in a fortnight:)
    Thanks for all the background information, Jeanne!

  3. says

    I haven’t had samphire since our visits to grandparents and great aunts in Norfolk as a child and teenager. We used to have it dripping in melted butter and loved sucking it off the stringy centre bit. Guaranteed messy but lovely salty tang, and I’m not usually a salt person either.

  4. says

    Now I know you’re not going to believe me Jeanne but we have samphire in South Africa. About 4 weeks ago I went to check it out close to Paternoster with a couple of chefs. Unfortunately it is in the National Park and so you’re not allowed to harvest it……. but purely in the interests of food knowledge and when no-one was looking……..it’s the real McCoy. Brian

  5. says

    I have only heard of samphire but never tasted it or even come close to tasting it. How curious it must be for the salt to be infused right in it. And I’ve _seen_ nopales but before your post, didn’t know what they were called. Needless to say, I haven’t tasted them either. But if it really does taste like asparagus, count me in. Hmmmm, I wonder if St. Lawrence market in Toronto has any…. (just kidding)
    Your trout looks delicious!!

  6. Robert says

    I absolutely adore samphire, but we see it so seldom in Dublin that I usually reserve it for salads. This dish looks fantastic thought and the next time I find samphire at the market I will have to give it a go.

  7. says

    I don’t get the poor man’s asparagus thing either and I’m thinking samphire probably costs a bomb too. Unless it’s a reference to it looks a little like asparagus and you can get it for free, if you know where to go.

  8. Lara says

    fascinating! thanks for describing all this–I never knew the history and the real name of this plant. samphire is just getting popular in the U.S.–here it’s known as “sea beans” and you can buy it at big chain health food/organic food stores like Whole Foods. those of us who live in california find it on the beach. lovely in salads!

  9. says

    I’ve said it before at Ed’s, I’ll say it again. The upclose and personal view of raw samphires gives me goosebumps! I claim ignorance but would gladly and bravely down any cooked ones.

  10. says

    isn’t samphire just great? we just recently discovered it as well – well, more like bought it because we realized, we will die of curiosity if nothing else by not trying it. now we’re on to sea spinach which again is something i haven’t tried before.

  11. says

    Jeanne – What a great information gatherer you are! I had heard of samphire before but didn’t think to look it up. Thank you for not only showing us how to prepare it but also for forewarning us of its salty properties. The trout looks grand, too – give me almonds any day of the week!

  12. says

    Hi from Melbourne, Australia. I found samphire for the first time recently in a specialty stall at the local markets. After much deliberating, I used it in a simple tuna pasta, instead of olives. I’m looking forward to further adventures with this vegetable.

    • Alice says

      Hi there,
      I am living in melbourne and am desperate to find some samphire. Please can you let me know which speciality markets you have found it in?

  13. Libby says

    oh my god
    at long last we found some growing near where we live must have walked past it hundreds of times.
    we picked some (not enough though) blanched it tosted it in butter my god it was brill, like the first feed of runner beans even my son ate it and normally he only eats potatoes and peas.
    Going back tomorrow for some more and i am also going to try a pickling receipe.
    This stuff is great and its free how good is that???
    I know my local market sell it but it is very expensive and always sold out. I just hope and pray they dont know where i know it grows.
    One thing i need to know is how to pick it with out stopping it re-growing.
    Do i just cut bits off but let the main root stay inthe ground so it still grows???

  14. says

    Usually I’m really sensitive to high salt content in food, whereas Goon loves itm, but with samphire it seems to be the other way around. He barely touched his portion whereas I gobbled up both!
    I’m surprised you don’t see the asparagus link… I thought it tasted a lot like salted, crunchy asparagus to me. But, then again, I’ve never tried the prickly pear plant you mentioned.
    I saw a samphire and king prawn risotto recipe (I think it was a Rick Stein one) somewhere which I’m dying to try soon.

  15. says

    Hi Jeanne, I’m a very recent transplant to London and just discovered marsh samphire in my local market this week. It’s wonderful. I’ll be writing about it soon and have been doing a fair bit of online research, and your post was about three million percent more informative than almost anything else I’ve found. Thank you!
    I’ve also been food blogging for a long time (though not quite as long as you have!) at Umami Girl and Serious Eats, and I practiced law in New York for several years, so I am feeling quite at home on your site (if not quite yet in London as a whole). Nice to meet you, and thanks again for the terrific background on samphire.