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Today’s supporting post for Laurel at Austenprose for her Sanditon GroupRead is made at her specific request. She knows I love to eat this plant, and so asked me to contribute a piece on Samphire.

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He began, in a tone of great taste and feeling, to talk of the sea and the sea shore; and ran with energy through all the usual phrases employed in praise of their sublimity and descriptive of the undescribable emotions they excite in the mind of sensibility. The terrific grandeur of the ocean in a storm, its glass surface in a calm, its gulls and its samphire and the deep fathoms of its abysses, its quick vicissitudes, its direful deceptions, its mariners tempting it in sunshine and overwhelmed by the sudden tempest — all were eagerly and fluently touched; rather commonplace perhaps, but doing very well from the lips of a handsome Sir Edward, and she could not but think him a man of feeling, till he began to stagger her by the number of his quotations and the bewilderment of some of his sentences.

Sanditon, Chapter 7

(View of Sanditon by Joan Hassell from The Folio Society’s Edition of  Jane Austen’s Works)

Sir Edward Denham, in full flood, talking overblown and hackneyed nonsense about the sea to Charlotte Hayward, in order to punish Clara Brereton. Charlotte Haywood assesses his character correctly, I think:

She began to think him downright silly. His choosing to walk with her, she had learnt to understand. It was done to pique Miss Brereton. She had read it, in an anxious glance or two on his side; but why he should talk so much nonsense, unless he could do no better, was unintelligible. He seemed very sentimental, very full of some feeling or other, and very much addicted to all the newest-fashioned hard words, had not a very clear brain, she presumed, and talked a good deal by rote.

It would have been wonderful to see how this particular intriguing character played out throughout the novel: I think he may have been the anti-hero, rather in the manner of John Thorpe, possibly causing Charlotte Heywood some potential harm to her reputation, only for her to be “rescued” by the intervention of someone……but it is not to be. Sadly, we shall never know.

In his raptures about the sea he mentions samphire, a vegetable that is now found on the menus of the trendiest restaurants, but for centuries it was poor food, free to those who picked it, usually ordinary people living by the sea .Why he mentions it is probably indicative of his deliberately overblown “romantic” and sentimental manner. Let me explain.

There are two types of samphire that grow in the United Kingdom: Rock Samphire and Marsh Samphire.

The more common Marsh samphire (Salicornia europaea) is a member of the beet family ( chenopodium) and grows on salt marches and estuaries, watered by the sea. It was also known as glasswort, because the ashes of burnt marsh samphire ( known as burilla)were used in the process of manufacturing soda glass from as early as the 12th century : the plant is an abundant, easily collected (and free) source of soda.

For epicureans this is thought to be the inferior of the two species. In the Oxford Companion to Food Alan Davidson noted:

Marsh samphire is more salty than rock and does not have the same powerful aroma.

In most trendy restaurants in the UK, this is the sort of samphire you would now eat: a fashion for it began after it was served at the wedding breakfast of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer .Barrels of it were sent to London for the feast from the Norfolk estate owned by the Queen, Sandringham.

But this is not the samphire to which Sir Edward refers. He is talking of rock samphire.

Rock samphire ( Crithmum maritmum) is a member of the umbelliferae family and is a small woody shrub. It originated in the Mediterranean. Both the Romans and Greeks used it in their culinary traditions. The plant derives it common name , Samphire, from the  French name  herb de Sainte-Pierre:  because it grows on rocks near the sea it obviously seemed natural to name it after the fisherman saint, Peter, whose name in  Greek, Petros , means “rock”. It was most commonly found on the coasts of the south coast of England and on the Isle of Wight, and as you can see from, the picture below, of it growing high up on the Dorset “Jurassic”coast,  that it grows in very inaccessible places.

It was an immensely popular pickle, and that eventually led to its demise(it was over picked): it is now rather rare.

In Flora Britannica ,Richard Mabey notes that:

In the early 19th century rock samphire from the Isle of Wight and from around the cliffs of Dover  was so popular that it was sent in casks of brine to London where wholesalers would  pay up to 4 shillings a bushel for it.

In most recipe books dating from the 17th century onwards sadly no distinction is made between the two sorts. We must assume therefore that they were both prepared in the same way.

This recipe is taken from my copy of Richard Brigg’s book The English Art of Cookery,(1794)


and is typical of the method of pickling samphire

The reason why Sir Edward probably mentions it is that it was once so popular (and free) that people risked their lives to gather it from the cliff faces where it grew and it has become a sort of literary cliche, so often is it mentioned in travel and botanical  literature from the 17h century onwards. Most of these writers make reference to Shakespeare’s famous description of the harvesting processt in King Lear,(Act IV scene vi) where Edgar, intent on fooling his father, the now blinded Gloucester, that he is standing on the edge of the cliffs near Dover describes the imaginary scene:

Come on, sir; here’s the place. Stand still. How fearful

And dizzy ’tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!

The crows and choughs that wing the midway air

Show scarce so gross as beetles. Half way down

Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!

Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.

The fishermen that walk upon the beach

Appear like mice; and yond tall anchoring bark,

Diminished to her cock; her cock, a buoy

Almost too small for sight. The murmuring surge

That on the unnumbered idle pebbles chafes

Cannot be heard so high. I’ll look no more

Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight

Topple down headlong.

This vibrant image was taken up by travel writers writing about the cliffs of southern England and the Isle of Wight -from the 17th century onwards.

(Map from The Guide to all the Watering and Sea Bathing Places etc (1803) by John Feltham)

For instance, Robert Turner writing about the method of gathering samphire on the  Isle of Wight in 1664 noted that it was

Incredibly dangerous…yet many adventure it ,though they may buy their sauce with the price of their lives

(The British Physician or the Nature and Virtues of British Plants(1664).

Sir Edward is therefore hardly being original in his “impassioned ” speech to Charlotte. The falsely overblown baronet is merely reciting these somewhat hackneyed phrases and literary clichés of the sea to Charlotte in order to …what? Impress her with his knowledge? Indicate he is a man of sensibility-a man of feeling ? Oh yes. He is a slightly more sophisticated version of Mr Collins, not quoting conduct books this time, but any romantic poet or notion instead, in order to impress and maintain his ‘romantic” persona.*shudder*

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