Not too far along the coast from Cancale lies a small patch of muddy marshland that’s wonderfully isolated and full of salicornes. Salicornia, samphire…there are lots of other names for coastal plant: the medieval-sounding glasswort, or the straightforward, here’s-why-it’s-worth-seeking out sea beans, sea asparagus, and pickleweed.
I often walk that long curve of the bay with the marsh as my destination, heading out along the rocky shore, then coming back by the path that rises slowly to the cliff above the port, getting a good dose of seaside and countryside in the same 90-minute hike.
I’d never kayaked over there, till recently, though. There are far more exciting kayak destinations that can be reached from the harbor: bird refuge islands, 18th century fortresses, café-lined coves that are perfect for beaching for a quick cup of coffee… But with the wind up and the current running strong with the spring tide, I decided to just paddle my way around the coast, soak up the heat and sunshine of a summer morning and…why not…check on that samphire patch to see if it was ready to be picked.
Riding the wind and the incoming tide (Read: I got a break from paddling!), I landed on the mudflats… smack in the middle of the brightest, greenest, tenderest, samphire I’d ever seen. It was perfect, magical, even, and I spent a few minutes mentally congratulating myself on my foraging acumen…up until I realized those bright, green, tender, perfect samphire stems were fast disappearing under the still-rising tide, and my kayak was dangerously close to floating away. (The 30 foot/10 meter tides in this part of the world come in pretty darned fast. Perhaps not as fast as a galloping horse as the legend goes, but still.) So much for THAT great plan. Nothing to do but hop into the kayak and turn back, but I vowed to return—at low tide, when I’d have plenty of time to squelch through the mud and pick what I pleased.
But why all this fuss and bother just to stalk a few handfuls of wild edibles? Because samphire looks, tastes and grows like nothing else I know of in the food world. It’s got a crunch like a cucumber a flavor akin to greener beans but deeper, richer, and far more intense, and a haunting, through-and-through sea-saltiness only a halophyte (salt-tolerant, dontcha love that word?) plant could have. Plus, the window for foraging samphire is super-short. Too early, the stems aren’t long enough to pluck. Too late, they flush to crimson and turn tough, stringy and totally inedible. So, when your kayak lands in a perfect patch, it’s as though all the stars have aligned just for you to pluck it and prepare it. Unless the tide’s coming in, that is.
The second time I went to the marsh for samphire, I biked. All these years I’d been walking to the marsh, it had never occurred to me I could get there any other way. (Of course, all these years, I’ve had a plain ol’ mountain bike and now I have Rocambole, my e-bike, which changes EVERYTHING now that I don’t have to huff and puff up hills and against the wind.) On the bike, I was able to swing by the nearby Chateau Richeux for a loaf of sourdough bread and get home in time to eat several slices with butter while it was still WARM from the wood-fired oven.
Recipe: Quick-Pickled Samphire