Watercress – a culinary hero
As many of you know, I am passionate about Dorset’s impressive food culture, and watercress is one of the things that make it so special. Visiting The Watercress Company near Dorchester and seeing first-hand the vast green vista of watercress beds was a peak experience for me. It is our loveliest and most ancient salad crop, growing mainly in Dorset but also in neighbouring Hampshire, thriving on the mineral-rich chalk springs and relatively mild climate.
Watercress has always been associated with mystique. The Romans believed it helped them make ‘bold’ decisions. In medieval times it was thought to reverse baldness and restore fading beauty. It was even extolled as an aphrodisiac. That said, supposedly celibate Irish monks made a point of surviving on watercress for long periods, referring to it as “the pure food of wise men”. Traditional healers relied on it to treat a remarkable assortment of ailments: headaches, kidney stones, lethargy and scurvy to name but a few.
Even today, watercress’s extraordinary health properties continue to hit the headlines. Backed by sound medical research, it’s hailed as a ‘superfood’ packed with essential nutrients: iron, vitamin C, health-promoting phytochemicals and antioxidants with cancer-fighting potential. In these covid-ridden times a healthy diet is paramount, so it’s well worth adding watercress to your menu.
As far as the cook is concerned, watercress adds punchy flavour to all kinds of dishes. Though a sprightly sprig makes a pleasing garnish for grilled meat or oily fish, offsetting the richness, most people invariably push it aside, which rather misses the point. It’s far better to make watercress the key ingredient. Try it in a salad, with glacial strips of Belgian chicory and walnuts perhaps, or slivers of red onion and immaculately sliced oranges. It works well with eggs too – chop roughly and add to omelettes, scrambled eggs or savoury egg-based tarts. I also like it finely chopped, mixed with softened unsalted butter and rolled into a cylinder to keep in the fridge, ready for melting a slice over grilled meat or fish.
I have a childhood memory of watercress sandwiches for Sunday tea. They were a bit of a treat and made me feel all was well with the world. By no means dainty, they were made with hefty slices of farmhouse bread thickly spread with butter and filled with “plenty of watercress so that it bursts cheerfully out at the sides”, as the late food writer Jane Grigson so rightly recommended.
Watercress is milder when cooked but still retains its peppery bite. It loses bulk in the same way as spinach, but because of its powerful flavour you don’t need vast amounts. Stir a handful into pasta or risotto, or try it with mushrooms in my recipe for slightly spicy Watercress and Mushroom Pâté. It also makes very good soup, either with potato and cream as in the classic French potage cressonière, or with leeks in satisfying Watercress and Leek Soup.
I recently received a covetable stash of bunched watercress from The Watercress Company, for developing some user-friendly recipes. Each bunch was beautifully packaged in an origami-like cone of crisp sustainable paper from the Lake District. The paper was almost strokable, making the greenery attractive in a way that a plastic bag couldn’t come close to achieving. You’ll find watercress packaged like this in selected supermarkets, grocers, butchers, farm shops and delis nationwide. It’s at its best right now, so be sure to make the most of it during these challenging times.
© Christine McFadden, September 2020