Although a traditional farming method that has seen little change since ancient roman times, the cultivation of British watercress has seen a positive revival in recent years.
Farming hand in hand with the nature that surrounds it, British watercress growers have been tending to this superfood since the 19th Century. Since the first British watercress farm was established in 1808 by William Bradbury in Kent, farmers have been sustainably nurturing this nutrient-packed vegetable, avoiding the use of pesticides where possible to ensure it is grown simply and harmoniously within its natural environment.
Grown now predominantly in Dorset and Hampshire, watercress is cultivated in shallow gravel beds immersed in chalk-filtered spring water that runs gently through the plants. It is from this mineral-rich water that this leaf gains its best nutrients, absorbing goodness using its roots deeply embedded in the gravel – this is why it is essential to keep its water flow as pure as possible.
In the last couple century, watercress however has been on an interesting culinary cycle. During the Victorian and Edwardian eras, watercress was held in very high regard, with the turn of the century only increasing its importance in the British diet. Throughout two World Wars, watercress was seen as an essential vegetable as a deprived population was forced to turn to home-grown alternatives to supplement a nutritionally poor diet. It was maybe this dependency on watercress that caused a change in attitude towards this leafy green.
Although slowly going out of fashion in the 50s and 60s, it was towards the latter end of the 20th century that watercress saw a disturbing demise, simply becoming ‘a bit on the side’. Forgotten for it extraordinary health credentials; rich in health-promoting nutrients and essential antioxidants, throughout this period, watercress only seemed to be a limp accompaniment to steak and chips.
Thankfully, since the establishment of the Watercress Alliance promoting the positive consumption of British watercress, it has returned to being a superfood staple in home and commercial kitchens up and down the country, becoming an essential ingredient for a healthy, balanced diet once again.
A FEW WATERCRESS FACTS
- watercress contains 15 essential vitamins and minerals. Gram for gram it contains more vitamin c than oranges, calcium than milk and iron than spinach
- watercress was the London ‘Fast Food’ of the Victorian era; sold by street sellers and consumed by the public in bunches as an ‘on-the-go’ snack
- Alresford in Hampshire, the official home of watercress, hosts a yearly festival celebrating the brilliance of this versatile leaf.
Don’t just use watercress as a garnish – here are some fantastic recipes that make the most of its peppery palate and tender leaves;
Words by Helen Upshall