A jewel set in a samphire sea

This succulent, almost absurdly green vegetable found in great clumps on Britain’s many salt marshes is well worth tracking down.

Samphire is well worth tracking down. Photograph: Corbis

Although my job involves more beating, kneading and whipping than a dominatrix saving for a holiday, I wouldn’t call it physically demanding, so an afternoon painstakingly harvesting tiny sprigs of samphire with a blunt pair of scissors came as a shock to my soft metropolitan system.

I’d been invited down to south Devon to see the crop destined for Riverford Organic’s vegetable boxes but I didn’t expect to be picking the stuff for them. My acceptance was based solely on the expectation I’d be stuffing myself silly with samphire; a succulent, almost absurdly green vegetable found in great clumps on Britain’s many salt marshes. Yet here I was, ankle deep in mud: if I bent down, it was rather like looking at a forest of miniature cacti.

Otherwise known as glasswort, because it was once burned for alkali to make glass, marsh samphire is not to be confused with the less common rock variety, which grows on cliffs, hence the name that, according to Jane Grigson, is a corruption of the French “St Pierre” (Peter meaning rock).

Rock samphire is the stuff to which Shakespeare is thought to have been referring in King Lear, when he dismissed samphire gathering as “a dreadful calling” – possibly because of its faintly sulphurous whiff (Riverford’s founder, Guy Watson, describes the flavour as “somewhere between chlorine and petrol”); or, and more probably, because of the dangers of scrambling around cliffs for a living. Either way, it’s hardly worth the bother.

Instead, the Miller family’s crop comes from some satisfyingly squelchy mud flats on the River Erme estuary, land on which, a decade ago, they grazed cows. Then the crumbling sea defences finally collapsed and the salt water flooded back in, drowning everything in its path.

The following spring, when one of the family finally ventured down there, they discovered the grass had been replaced by a carpet of marsh samphire, poking out of the mud like coarse green stubble. “Who knows where it came from,” Diana Miller muses. “It must be a couple of centuries since it last grew here.”

Initially, her son Joe tells me that his family ate a lot of the stuff, before his father Chris had the bright idea of trying to sell it – “and now,” he says sadly, “the novelty’s worn off a bit”. After a mere quarter of an hour dawdling around with my scissors, anxiously wondering if I might have a bad back, I can sympathise. The fleeting summer season plus the whims of the tide make harvesting an uncertain business; as Joe says, “You can be out here at 6am or 10pm, and it’s hard to find paid labour for that.” Hence he does it himself.

Even a pro like Joe can only gather about 2.5kg an hour (and Natural England imposes strict daily limits, in any case) – so I’ve got no chance, especially as our atrocious spring has set the crop back a month, and each salty sprig is no taller than a lime-green jelly baby.

Better to hide my pitiful efforts in my pocket and tuck into the feast prepared for us by the Riverford cook Kirsty Hale, who’s been busy steaming a batch on a camping stove, Keith Floyd-style, as we play at manual labour. She serves it up tossed in melted butter and lemon juice – a bowl full of the crisp, salty, ever so slightly iodiney taste of the sea and a happy pairing with a pale-pink slab of sea trout caught in the River Dart the evening before.

If you’re patient enough to have a go at harvesting a modest amount of samphire yourself (it does get easier as it grows larger), make sure you cut the stems, rather than uprooting the whole plant, so there’s a crop next year. Wash it well to get rid of any mud or grit (never soak it) then use the stems raw and crunchy in salads, stirred into scrambled eggs, omelettes or pasta, or steamed and liberally buttered with fish.

And if you do happen to have a bad back – well, you can order samphire from Riverford or your local fishmongers.