Rock Samphire

Halfway down

Hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade!

These words, from Shakespeare’s play King Lear, are spoken by Edgar as he peers over the edge of the cliffs at Dover. He is describing the scene to his father, the Earl of Gloucester, whose political naivety has led to his eyes being torn out by a man he had welcomed into his house as a guest. “Out, vile jelly!” Now Gloucester stands on the cliff top, a foolish old man preparing to put an end to his agonies…

According to forager and wild food expert John Wright, Rock Samphire tastes of “carrot and kerosene” and is redolent of turpentine.  Well then, we might consider whether the “dreadful trade” of the samphire gatherer, suspended hundreds of feet in the air to pick a few foul leaves, might have been intended by Shakespeare to serve as an analogy of the pursuit of political power. Difficult and risky to obtain, sometimes fatal, ultimately bitter, unpalatable. And it’s a long way down when you fall.

But in fact, rock samphire (or “cyrn y ceirw” in Welsh) was a very popular food in Shakespeare’s day; its succulent leaves were pickled or added to salads. It’s likely that children were the main gatherers, hanging from ropes secured by unscrupulous employers or desperate parents. The crop was transported in barrels of sea water to markets in London. The name is derived from Saint Pierre, the patron saint of fishermen, and apparently it will not grow on rocks that get submerged by the tide. Useful knowledge, if you’re on the rocks at night. The reason that Shakespeare’s brave gatherers are swinging about on the white cliffs is probably because the more accessible samphirehas already been harvested. By the late nineteenth century its popularity had led to its scarcity.

But today samphire has fallen out of fashion and as a consequence it is far easier to find. I picked some in Porthcawl from a friend’s garden wall, but it grows all over the rocks from the town out towards Rest Bay and beyond. I chose younger shoots as the older leaves look likely to be tough and stringy. The raw leaf certainly is pungent, and yes I can understand the comparison with turpentine. But simmered for a while the volatile edge is softened to a pleasant wild citrus, and the leaves retain some firmness. I served mine for breakfast with cockles and toast, and a spot of butter and it was not bad at all. I’d certainly eat it again. The lemons in the picture below were unnecessary, and the glass of samphire tea, reportedly a favourite of King George V, I found to be bland. So I ditched it for a glass of white Bordeaux, left over from last night. Much better.

Kenfig Journal by Kristian Evans

Kristian Evans is an artist and writer from Bridgend interested in ecology and the ways we think about and interact with the “other-than-human” world. He has lived in Kenfig for five years. His performance installation “The Mirror’s Grain,” written with Tracy Evans, was launched at the Kenfig National Nature Reserve Centre in May 2010, as part of the “Mouth to Mouth” series of events organised by Arts for the Earth. The Kenfig Journal will appear here regularly.

@kenfigdunes on twitter