Here on the coast of The Wash we can, if we wish, still measure the seasons by produce. I say “if we wish”, because supermarkets have no seasons – everything is available all the year round. But in the old fashioned world of buying food when it is fresh and local, the year has its own rhythm. Early summer gives us asparagus, followed by strawberries. In autumn and winter Brancaster mussels and native oysters are delicious, but for me, the true treasure of the summer months is samphire. This plant of the coastal marshes, Crithmum maritimum, allegedly gets its name from a corruption of the French “St Pierre”, but whatever its etymology, it is utterly delicious. Lightly boiled or steamed, it is best eaten with the fingers. Running the stems through your teeth to strip off the flesh is a completely sybaritic sensation. Local folk love it with vinegar, but with butter and coarsely ground pepper it is little short of heavenly.
But hold on, you say, this is mostly a crime fiction site. What’s with the gourmet stuff? Bear with me for a moment longer. Let’s look at the price. As you can see from the photos, it’s £5.99 for a kilo here in the market. Sadly, this will be the last until June or July next year, but no matter. A quick search on the internet reveals that an online Cornish fishmonger will provide some for £16.90 a kilo, Waitrose are selling it for £22 a kilo, and if you want to use a firm called Fine Food Specialists, a kilo will set you back a cool £34.50.
Now with that kind of a mark-up, we are almost into class ‘A’ drug territory – and this is where the crime fiction link comes in. In 2014, the estimable Jim Kelly updated his Peter Shaw and George Valentine series with At Death’s Window. In addition to solving a series of burglaries at properties along the Norfolk coast owned by wealthy out-of-towners, Shaw and Valentine become involved in a turf war between product dealers. These are not your common-or-garden drug barons, or even owners of ice cream vans, but dealers in samphire! As I have illustrated, with a 300% mark-up available for an item that can be had for nothing, why bother with something as illegal and potentially lethal as narcotics? The problem in At Death’s Window comes when local folk are muscled off their home territory by criminal gangs using illegal immigrants as pickers. Think cockles and the Morecambe Bay tragedy, and you can see how it all might go pear-shaped.
So, as I sit down tonight and indulge myself with the last of the summer samphire, and a glass of something invigorating to wash it down, I shall drink a toast to Jim Kelly, anticipate the first sighting – and tasting – of the new season’s mussels, and dream about next summer. Oh yes, I almost forgot. Samphire pickles extremely well, and I have a few jars in the cupboard to sample in the dark depths of winter!
We have plenty of Jim Kelly on the site, for anyone whose interest has been piqued. There’s an appreciation of his writing, Jim Kelly – a landscape of secrets and a review of his latest book, Death Ship. You can also follow the link to get hold of a copy of At Death’s Window.