On 17th May the folks of Alresford in Hampshire will celebrate their annual Watercress Festival. Amongst the usual what-have-you of a British Spring fete – local bands, morris dancers etc – will be the rather less usual World Watercress Eating Championships. (At 3pm if you fancy your chances.) Those Championships bely the serious business behind Alresford’s well-regarded big day: the opportunity to enjoy some of the first and finest watercress of the season from local producers.
Hampshire’s watercress beds enjoy a rich supply of the nutrient-heavy spring water that is needed for these plants to thrive. The resulting crop may indeed be well worth a party in its own right but there is more to the Festival than just that. It is about marking the boom in the local industry once Victorian industrialisation led to watercress production being commercialised, and the advent of the railways which meant producers could for the first time get the watercress out beyond its local market and down to London before going off. Once in the capital the watercress became hugely popular. Demand and supply kicked in. The rest is – for Alresford, at least – history.
Those fashionable Victorians evidently knew a good thing when they tasted it. Watercress’ bright zing can freshen the palate and plate like little else in the leaf line. There’s a peppery crunch to it that opens up so many possibilities for using it in the Spring kitchen. I’m giving here a recipe for watercress and walnut soup that can be served warm or chilled and is lovely from Spring right through the Summer. For a heartier lunch some cheese would go as well with that soup as it does with watercress generally. Now is the time to think about a pear, watercress and goats cheese salad; or maybe a rarebit of watercress and stilton on toast.
That last partnership works thanks to the watercress’ pepperiness marrying with the stilton’s saltiness. Other salt and pepper combos are good too. Sunday breakfast bacon can be made all the more delicious by a pancake with a few sprigs of watercress left over from something else being chopped finely into its batter.
Or how about tossing a handful or two of watercress with freshly steamed new potatoes, chives and a light vinaigrette? Maybe chop some watercress up with celery and herbs then bind with lemon, raisins, egg and breadcrumbs to make a stuffing for chicken or lamb loin? Or simply dress the leaves as an accompaniment to steak and chips – a classic and for good reason.
Much of the watercress available to us in the shops is imported. Unsurprisingly, really, as at the turn of this century there were only 150 acres of cultivated watercress in Britain. That contrasts with 1000 acres the last time watercress was so popular – in the 1940s. There was considerable demand during both World Wars for watercress as a plentiful, home-grown and healthy crop . That it was tasty too was just a bonus. Watercress is packed with vitamins, calcium, iron and folic acid. Good news for those taking part in the World Watercress Eating Championships.
The decline in UK production says all kinds of interesting things about our diets, lifestyles and industries changing in the second half of last century. A new breed of small producers are turning that round, though, by tapping into the modern appeal of watercress, its healthy-eating benefits, and for reconnecting with where and how our food is produced. The resurgence of the British watercress industry could benefit right now from a supply-and-demand-type boost of the sort which Alresford is still celebrating. Please do keep your eyes peeled this Spring and Summer and you should be able to find lots of lovely, lush British watercress to pep up your warm weather cooking.
Watercress and Walnut Soup (serves 4)
1 stick of celery
1tbsp plain flour
300ml single cream
50ml dry sherry
half a lemon
a handful of shelled walnuts
1. Finely chop the onion and the celery. Melt the butter in a large pan and slowly cook both vegetables in that until they are softened but not colouring. Add the flour and stir on the heat for a minute or so. Still stirring, pour in the cream, sherry and water. Bring to boil and then simmer gently with the lid on for 5 minutes.
2. Keep a few small sprigs of watercress back to use as garnish and then wilt the rest by immersing briefly – 15-20 seconds only – in a large pan of boiling water. Drain and then refresh in very cold water. Squeeze the water out of all that watercress and then stir into the cream etc. Blitz until smooth, give it a squeeze of lemon, and check the seasoning.
3. Now either reheat and serve the soup, or chill it. The walnuts should be broken up and sprinkled over as garnish together with the held back watercress sprigs. (The walnuts will release more of their delicious oils if you give them a couple of minutes in a dry frying pan before using.)
I like to serve this with goats cheese on toast; or slices of a strong, hard cheese on oatcakes.
For more information about watercress, its health benefits, the Arlesford festival and further recipe ideas, visit www.watercress.co.uk (yes, there’s a dedicated website).