A taste of sea
Briny yet fresh, reviving like a fresh breeze on a midsummer afternoon on the seashore. Samphire is a gem of summer tables. It has so many names that it is easy to get confused. It may appear as marsh samphire, salicornia, glasswort, sea bean, sea asparagus or the charming name chicken claws, just to list a few. All have a reason, representing a certain property of the plant.
Let’s first differentiate it from its cousin, rock samphire, which is totally a different plant, and tastes miles apart from marsh samphire. Rock samphire is also an aquatic plant, as its Latin name Crithmum maritimum suggests, which finds its most comfortable habitat on the rocks by the seashore. Both plants are succulent and salt-resistant, thus having a feel of salty seawater, but rock samphire has a powerful resinous aroma, reminiscent of varnish smell, bearing almost a medicinal taste. In historical cookbooks, the name samphire usually refers to the earlier used French name “sampere” or “sampier,” which was originally called “Herbe de Saint-Pierre.” This was the most appropriate attribution to the plant that is clung to the rocks in cliffs bathed by breaking waves, St. Peter being the patron saint of fishermen, which interestingly comes from Petros in Greek meaning rock. The taste of rock samphire is in line with its powerful name, hard to get acquainted and harsh to the palate, but very stimulating, serving almost like a teaser to the tongue. It is usually preserved in vinegar or brine, to be consumed like a palate refresher with its menthol-like freshness, almost reminding of mouthwash Listerine. The pickling tradition has interesting historical roots, in England it was collected from the cliffs of Isle of Wight and shipped to the markets of London in casks filled with seawater, so it would not be spoiled. In Turkey, we also get it pickled in jars, its eucalyptus-like taste going wonderfully in meze tables, flirting with the anise-laden aroma of our national drink rakı. It is called “kaya koruğu,” a poetic name when translated, meaning “unripe grape of the rocks,” perhaps referring to its succulent green flesh resembling unripe grapes, with same tanginess and tannic taste.
Marsh samphire, Salicornia europea, on the other hand, is smooth tasting despite its saltiness. Sal-icornia name emphasizes this saltiness, and its looks like dark green slender beans, is perfectly suited for its Turkish name “deniz börülcesi,” börülce being a sort of bean eaten both fresh as green pods, and dried to make black-eyed peas or beans. Here it is not only the visual similarity but also the taste, which is strangely quite similar, just as its strong resemblance to wild asparagus, sea asparagus being another nametag it bears. However, the North American name chicken claws only remains in the similarity of its forked fleshy stems, though the taste might go well with chicken. The British glasswort name comes from its use in the glassmaking process in the old times. Found near the shores washed with all the minerals and trace elements coming down from the highlands above, samphire is high in soda. In the old times, it was collected from the marshes, dried and burnt in ovens; its ash used in the production of glass, hence the name glasswort.
With whatever name you call it, or whichever type you prefer, samphire is the coolest taste of summer. Luckily, we have them in abundance, thanks to our long seashores, even if we cannot go for a sea vacation, samphire brings a breeze of seas to our tables.
Fork of the Week: Marsh samphire, or now with its more chic and popular name salicornia, is recently discovered by chefs worldwide. It is very expensive in certain countries, usually treated like a jewel, pretty much like caviar, only a few strands of it topping a pretty seafood plate. In Turkey, we are very lucky to have it by the bunch, pretty available in fine greengrocers, and sometimes in the fishmongers. Still cautious in going to crowded markets, my bunch of sea breeze tasting salicornia came to my door online from Taze Direkt online shopping, which delivers the freshest products directly from producers and farms. Taze means fresh in Turkish, so the online service translates as Fresh Direct, rightly so, I neglected mine for a good two weeks in the fridge, and when I finally cooked it, slightly boiled in unsalted water, it was still in pristine condition and the freshness of the sea was instantly on my plate. https://www.tazedirekt.com/
Cork of the Week: Marsh samphire naturally goes wonderfully with seafood, so the most likely drink partner is a steely dry white wine, one with almost savory saline tastes with a kick of minerals. However, thinking together with rock samphire, I’d suggest a newly launched anise drink as a perfect match, made with a new method soon to be patented. It is a long-steeping method called “uzun demleme,” distilling in copper pots for five times, in a way, making a kraft version of good old rakı. We are already familiar with triple-distilled vodkas or more, but this new gem is way beyond, distilled from 100 percent fresh grapes for the first time, then distilled four times more with freshly picked anise seeds, each time with an elongated time of 72 hours, compared to the usual 48 hours, the whole process summing up to 12 days instead of the common practice of distilling it for two days. The result is as smooth as it gets, a sublime silky feeling that glides down the throat like satin. It is in a way like a marsh samphire compared to rock samphire, much more delicate to any rakı we have previously sipped.