Collecting Samphire with JQ

Samphire is bush tucker, a native succulent also known as sea asparagus, sea beans or swamp grass. It grows on the waterway verges across southern Australia and can be found at any number of places around these parts. The banks near the mouth of the Powlett River and along the creek at Wreck Beach are two places that spring to mind. Today my father, Jim Quilford or JQ, and I go looking for it. We opt for the latter location – Coal Creek at Wreck Beach. 

Our kit is minimal – scissors and a plastic container for JQ, a small knife and cotton bag for me. Wreck Beach is only about 5km from my parent’s house, you head out of town, past the cemetery, keep straight on for a ways until the road transitions to gravel – Old Boiler Road. The carpark is just a couple of hundred metres further along. Keep an eye out for the ‘No through road’ sign then turn right.

  The carpark is sheltered by the scrub. Normally it’s deserted but with school holidays and the lead up to Christmas the area is much busier. Four parked cars. One, with two men and a woman, is being unpacked – fishing rods, beers and a dog.

I park adjacent and kill the engine. As JQ climbs out the passenger seat, a bloke from the group yells at warning about the dogs they have in the car. His tone is direct, nearly aggressive leaving the door ajar for a blunt response. My father does not react well. I climb out of the car to an angry exchange. I don’t exactly catch what’s been said but JQ and the younger man stand only metres apart pointing angrily. Bloody hell, here we go, I think. I ask everybody to calm down, repeating ‘Don’t worry about it. Leave it be.” The woman agrees, “Nothing to be angry about, it's Christmas,” or something to that effect. I usher my father along the beach track as the younger bloke continues muttering about grumpy old cunts who need to watch themselves. So much for a relaxing foraging trip.

JQ has a strong affinity for place. To the point that his comfort is often dictated by his proximity to home. He seems far more comfortable in the places he knows. This is a place he certainly knows well. The nearest fence line marks the border of the farm he and my mother used to own, and which was owned by his parents before him. JQ grew up walking these beaches and working those scrubby paddocks. His anger comes from being questioned in his own backyard, or something like that.

I ponder these things as we make our way down the beach path. The coastal scrub, Teatree, She Oak, Banksia and other coastal flora arch over the track like a vaulted cloister. After a couple of hundred metres it opens to a vantage of the ocean. We pause a moment in the shade, enjoy the taste of salt on the breeze and take in the view. The brackish creek below separates us from a large yellow dune and the ocean beyond. Gravel steps chipped into the ridgeline lead down to the creek bed and the wooden footbridge that affords access over the creek to the beach. The bridge is a relatively new addition, as kids we’d have to wade the brown muddy water or track the creek bed a couple of hundred metres either east to the inlet or westward where a rocky outcrop provides a natural ford.

The samphire bed settlers in the swale on the other side of the creek, just next to the bridge. We cross the wooden structure and clamber down the lee side of the dune to the riverbed. The water level is still high enough for the brackish water to lap at the samphire bed. We start harvesting. It’s easy work, just bending down to cut the green shots off the top of the plants. I pause a moment and taste it raw – the salty fibrous crunch hints at elusive ancient connections. It’s at its best at this time of year (from October through to December) apparently. Savouring the sensory prompt, I attempt to open my senses to the complexities of my inhabitation of this country. Bunurong family groups have harvested this bed for millennia. It would have provided an important source of fibre and a delicious accompaniment to their seafood feasts. The middens in the adjacent dunes attest to those times. 

The group we encountered in the carpark are crossing the bridge as we’re finishing up. The woman asks what we are up to before cheerily repeating her previous Christmas wishes while JQ and his nemesis glower at one another. They make their way up the dune toward an afternoon of fishing while we head back up to the carpark. 

When we arrive home, JQ puts a kettle on to blanche the samphire. Once it cools, I take another taste. The hot water has softened the crunch and taken the edge off the bitterness but that intangible complexity remains. The cooling stack of greens will slowly dwindle over the coming days, as it’s used in salads and used to add something unique to mains.