Thanks to their ability to trap organic detritus, saltmarshes are also important for capturing and storing carbon – more effective, in fact, than forests of equivalent size. Because of this, it is vital that such a valuable natural habitat is not over-exploited, and that samphire is only gathered for personal consumption. “With permission, landowners are generally quite relaxed about people picking for personal consumption,” said Dr Adele Powell, partnership coordinator for The Wash and North Norfolk Marine Partnership, “but less so when it’s done on a commercial scale, which is technically illegal.”
Driving along the Norfolk coast in search of this seasonal delicacy, I found foraged samphire on sale outside a couple of cottages at Blakeney, as well as from a bicycle at the quay that had a box of it for sale for £2 a bunch. Further on at the village of Morston, I saw it advertised for sale outside a house in the road that leads down to the quay. This is the real thing: locally sourced, emerald green and fresh from the marsh; no air-miles or supermarket vacuum packing involved in the process.
The best way to cook samphire is a matter of debate. It can be eaten raw, especially when young, but gentle cooking removes some of the pronounced saltiness. High-end restaurants tend to cook their imported samphire for a very short time, keeping most of the crunch and maritime purity of the plant. Galton Blackiston, owner and chef patron of North Norfolk’s Michelin-starred Morston Hall country house hotel and restaurant, makes use of the plant as a crunchy ingredient in his bacon, broad bean, samphire and new potato salad; while Dominic Chapman, once a head chef at Heston Blumenthal’s three Michelin-starred Fat Duck, adds lightly blanched samphire as a garnish to his elaborate crab ravioli.
In Norfolk, where its freshness and relative abundance allows it to be treated a little more prosaically, it is cooked – either lightly boiled or steamed – for about five minutes, perhaps with a dash of vinegar in the cooking water. Butter is usually added at the last minute to coat the stems, and some might whip up a hollandaise sauce for dipping. It goes without saying that no additional salt needs to be added and any extraneous saltmarsh mud needs to be carefully removed beforehand.
Although samphire can be enjoyed as an accompaniment to variety of dishes – seafood and lamb in particular – or incorporated into risotto or pasta dishes, it is perhaps best eaten as a simple dish on its own or with a soft-poached egg. The real pleasure is to eat it with your fingers, pulling each stem through the teeth, removing the nodules of delicate green flesh like beads on a necklace. With the salty tang of the sea and just a hint of seaweed-like iodine, such a delectable experience can only be described as having the essence of the Norfolk coast on a plate.
Hidden Britain is a BBC Travel series that uncovers the most wonderful and curious of what Britain has to offer, by exploring quirky customs, feasting on unusual foods and unearthing mysteries from the past and present.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called “The Essential List”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.