Watercress: a peppery paradox
Whether it's for soup or a leafy green salad, watercress is an essentially English ingredient. Dee McQuillan traces its roots in the Hampshire countryside.
Tasting both cool and hot, watercress is a leafy little paradox. The paradox has an explanation – the heat comes from an enzyme that releases a peppery or mustardy taste as we chew and the coolness in the juicy stems (never despise the stems) comes from the cool water the plant grows in and which it guzzles up to give a composition that is 92.5 per cent H2O. But that explanation is not really the point. The point of watercress is its stimulating taste and texture backed up by a big dose of goodness, the value of which has been recognised for centuries.
Nowadays we can reel off the vitamins and minerals: vitamins C and A, iron, calcium and potassium. We might even pluck up our courage and consult recent scientific studies of the plant's benefits. Earlier reasoning sounds strange but was based on empirical evidence that watercress contained nourishment beyond its size. The diarist and salad fiend John Evelyn (1620-1706) gives cresses as a whole the following salubrious qualities: 'moderately hot and aromatic, quicken the torpent (sic) spirits and purge the brain, and are of singular effect against the Scorbute'. Scorbute, of course, is scurvy or vitamin C deficiency. (Sadly for English watercress, Evelyn then fell right into the perennial trap for the trend-setter, which is valuing what is homely and to hand lowest of all, and dismissed our 'vulgar watercress' as the least nourishing.)
It is odd to learn that the watercress sandwich, now the height of daintiness, was once the breakfast of the London labour force but here it is, recorded by Henry Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor (1851). 'The first coster cry heard of a morning in the London streets is of “Fresh wo-orter-creases”. Those that sell them have to be on their rounds in time for the mechanic's breakfast, or the day's gains are lost.'
By Mayhew's time watercress was grown deliberately rather than hunted down in the wild. Hampshire had become the great centre of cultivation – so much so that the railway carrying cress from Alresford up to London's early risers became known as The Watercress Line – drawing quite literally on its clean chalk streams to mimic the plant's natural habitat.
According to our leading producer, Vitacress, the downlands of Hampshire are still watercress heaven today – the purity, composition and temperature of the water and the mild climate are perfect. Cool, hard water (10°C/51°F) at a constant temperature is the plant's main requirement; if the air temperature drops it ducks down into the water to protect itself and when the sun is powerful it can get a burnished tinge which the old boys and girls loved. These days, the water is drawn from the water table by borehole for purity's sake, rather than diverted from streams, and is fed into sloping beds lined with gravel. When the beds are harvested and drained, they can be regenerated simply by putting stems and reject flower heads back and adding water.
In the Test and Itchen valleys the bright green cress and the play of the water trickling through it is a gorgeous experience, even though most of the beds are now formed in prosaic concrete rather than painstakingly lined with stone. In my youthful haunts in Hants, I spotted the odd frog or duck taking advantage of the amenities, though now any supermarket supplier will want to play down the implications of this; Vitacress has bird-scaring guns and all manner of fences and pond life deterrents.
Vitacress, of St Mary Bourne, Hants, is an interesting concern: it is the biggest watercress supplier in Europe and has branched out to grow in Portugal and Florida when our March-to-September season is over, because it is a fact – like it or loathe it – that year-round supplies support sales. Alongside the highly modern washing and packing plant and this multinational growing policy, Vitacress also takes pride in selling big, old-style bunches (the best for soup) which go to the wholesale markets and on to independent greengrocers. An interesting sideline is selling on the juicy stalks and stems that don't go into convenient washed and ready-to-use bags of watercress, back to thoroughly modern manufacturers of fresh soups. We like a few shortcuts here at Delia Online but, on the subject of watercress for soup, our message is, go back to basics: buy a bunch and make your own glorious, green soup.
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