Photo ©Evie Saffron Strands
As we enter spring, bunches of peppery Watercress stand out on our shelves. This semi-aquatic herb, Nasturtium officinale, grows wild in British lowland streams and ditches but it’s not advisable to collect it because of the risk of liver fluke, spread by cattle and sheep. Watercress-growing depends on pure, mineral rich spring or borehole water for healthy growth. Growers practice a regime of flooding and draining to provide just the right conditions. At one time it was a crop that petered out in May when the flowers appeared. These days the season can be extended by the grower rotating the beds for replanting seedlings or by planting a late-flowering variety that allows Watercress to be cultivated through most of the summer. There is a natural lull in growth in the cold of winter too, though some growers cover their Watercress beds with plastic tunnels to extend the season.
We know the Greeks and Romans valued Watercress. Dr Nicholas Culpepper, in his Complete Herbal, championed the health-giving properties of watercress in 1653 – “Water-cress potage is a good remedy to cleanse the blood in the spring and help headaches and consume the gross humours winter has left behind; those that would live in health may use it as they please, if they will not, I cannot help it.” It was not grown on any great scale here until the beginning of the 19th century. In 1808 William Bradbury cultivated Cress in Springhead, Kent. Victorian London was so enamoured of Watercress that it was transported daily to the city from Alton in Hampshire by train on what was known as The Watercress Line. In the 1940’s more than 1,000 acres of land in England were being cultivated for watercress growing but by the end of the 20th century this had shrunk to only 150 acres, mostly in southern counties where the chalk soils are ideal.
The health benefits of Watercress now have scientific backing and it is recognised as a food with high nutritional value . Recent scientific research has shown that high levels of antioxidants, such as are present in Watercress, can increase the ability of cells to resist damage, helping to protect against the cell changes that can lead to some diseases. This member of the brassica family, related to mustard, is high in vitamins A, C and K and has high levels of calcium, iron and folate. In fact it has more than 15 important vitamins and minerals contained in its punchy leaves and stems. Experiments carried out by the Ministry of Health in the 1930s concluded that Watercress was excellent for promoting children’s growth and so it was made a staple ingredient in school dinners. The respected food historian and journalist, Derek Cooper, recalls being taken on outings to the Regent Park Zoon where, eating at the café, Watercress was offered ‘Ad Lib’. It was often eaten in sandwiches at breakfast time, though in poorer homes it was eaten on its own, which earned it the nickname “poor man’s bread”.
Sweet, spicy and tender when grown properly, it can be harsh and bitter when not given the right conditions to thrive. Watercress and rocket are inter-changeable in most dishes. It’s mostly thought of as a salad leaf but don’t throw away the stems which are juicy and contain much of the flavour. Pair watercress with orange segments and some toasted almonds for a simple salad; toss watercress, pieces of blue cheese (like Stilton or Stichelton), sliced pears and walnuts in a honey vinaigrette; serve alongside roast chicken or beef; pair with buttery scrambled eggs or fold into an omelette; finely chop with spinach, tarragon or parsley and add to a cream or egg based sauce to eat with salmon or chicken; make a creamy watercress soup; or a watercress sandwich with wholemeal bread and butter.
Watercress has a definite preference for coolness rather than heat or cold so we look forward to the spring season for Watercress. Right now, in late March, we have Watercress from France. Soon we will welcome our English-grown bunched Watercress.