If you have visited Rienzi to see English Taste: The Art of Dining in the Eighteenth Century, you have probably noticed a dish on the table vaguely resembling green beans. Rienzi’s docents often receive the question, “what’s that?” accompanied by an index finger aimed at the mass of unfamiliar green vegetation.
The answer to the common query is samphire. What, you might ask, is samphire?
Samphire, officially Crithmum maritimum but also known as crest marine, is an edible plant that grows on the rocky coasts of England and Ireland and consumed pickled. The name samphire comes from the English version of “Saint Pierre,” the patron saint of fishermen. The crisp plant has a salty, briny taste. The chef who served as inspiration for our exhibition, Mrs. Elizabeth Raffald, gives instruction on how to prepare the dish in her cookbook, The Experienced English Housekeeper:
To pickle Samphire
Wash your samphire very well in sour small beer, then put it into a large brass pan. Dissolve a little bay salt and twice the quantity of common salt, slow fire till it is a fine green. Then drain it through a sieve and put it into jars. Boil as much sugar vinegar or white wine vinegar with a race or two of ginger and a few peppercorns as will cover it. Then pour it hot upon your samphire and tie it well down.
Mrs. Raffald’s recipe is served at Rienzi’s table of about 1769, but the vegetable has a more extensive history in English cuisine. We know it was eaten in Shakespeare’s time – in his tragedy “King Lear,” Edgar, the son of Gloucester, notes: “Half-way down, Hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade!” (Act IV, scene VI, lines 14b-15). Shakespeare is referencing the dangerous task of collecting rock samphire from in between high, slippery sea cliffs. Samphire is also found in more accessible sandy areas along the coasts.
One of the foodies from Feast, while visiting English Taste, recalled collecting it as a child in England for consumption. Samphire is still eaten today – according to epicurious.com’s Food Dictionary, another version, salicornia, commonly known as “sea pickle” or “marsh samphire” grows on both the United States’ Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
If you are interested in learning more about the foods that grace Rienzi’s Dining Room table and their modern offspring, join us for Twilight Talk: A Conversation with the Foodies from Feast Restaurant on Thursday, December 1 at 6 pm. For tickets and more information please click here!