I love that watercress is grown all over the world but that the local Hampshire area is so well known for it. The Watercress Line is a clue (from the late Victorian times when the locally grown watercress was transported by train to the London markets). This Sunday marks the beginning of Watercress Week (19-25 May), with Alresford’s Watercress Festival (Sunday 19th) the celebration to kick it all off in the town centre.
As a garden photographer particularly interested in produce, I’m all for eating as locally and seasonally as possible, so watercress is right up my street. It’s also the original superfood: full of protein and Vitamins A, C, E and K to support the immune system, and fibre to help maintain a healthy gut. It’s also a natural source of iron, calcium, Vitamin B6, and folate – SO much more antioxidant-rich and nutrient-dense than other salad leaves.
The UK actually eats more watercress than anywhere else in the world, but if you’re not one of them yet, here’s why it’s really worth using it for more than just a sandwich or garnish… Firstly the taste is deliciously peppery and crisp. It’s a vibrant green aquatic plant, a member of the mustard (brassica) family and related to wasabi, broccoli, radish, horseradish and cauliflower, amongst others. Compare it to a regular mixed leaf salad bowl (cos, iceberg, spinach, lambs lettuce), and watercress smashes the nutrient stats with more than twice the amount of Vitamin K, twice as much iron, almost three times as much calcium, and nearly SIX times the amount of Vitamin C. On the Aggregate Nutrient Density index, this scores it an incredible 1000/1000 which, per calorie, makes it one of the most nutrient dense foods in the world!
I’ve come up with a couple of recipes that will make the most of watercress whatever the typical British summer weather throws at us – one for chilly days, and one to cool you down! And keep reading for a glimpse of where and how it is grown.
Watercress and Pear Soup – inspired by Gilbert White’s House
I visited Gilbert White’s House gardens a few years ago and when it started to drizzle outside, popped into the cafe for a bit of lunch. The staff told me that the day’s special was Watercress and Pear soup but that not many people had opted for it as it sounded an unusual combination. I’ve been experimenting to try and recreate it as it was SO tasty with a little gingery kick, and let me tell you – it’s a great pairing (jokes). It absolutely works beautifully well.
A knob of butter and a dash of olive oil
2x 85g bag watercress
2 good-quality pears (I bought mine at Noel’s Farm Shop – choose the most flavoursome, organic where possible)
1 small onion, chopped
1″ piece of root ginger, finely minced
500ml vegetable stock
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt & pepper to taste
Melt the butter with the oil, add the onion with a splash of water, and cook on the lowest heat until transparent and soft – about 10 minutes. Peel, core and chop the pears. Add the watercress to the pan with the pears and the minced fresh ginger. Pour in the stock, add salt and pepper to taste, and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
I use a hand blender to combine everything into a smooth soup; add the lemon juice and mix well. Enjoy with crusty bread – serves 3 / 4.
Watercress salad with pomegranate, watermelon and feta
This summery salad is so fresh it could be the Prince of Bel Air – served with a citrus dressing. The peppery watercress is set off deliciously by salty feta and the sweet fruit additions.
Juice of 1 orange
1 tbsp olive oil
150g watermelon cubes
100g feta cheese
3 tbsp pomegranate seeds
Salt and pepper
Mix the orange juice with the olive oil – I used a bottle of oil from Leonardslee Gardens – and give it all a really good twist of seasoning.
Combine the watercress, watermelon and crumbled feta. Drizzle with the citrus dressing to taste and scatter pomegranate seeds on top. Give it lots of black pepper (I love pepper!) – also really nice with some spring onion and served with a poached egg. Preferably eaten in the garden!
I visited Winchester Distillery in Old Alresford where the Watercress Company were busy beginning to harvest the crops. It’s the first time I’ve been able to see where watercress is grown, with the sound of fresh running water and birdsong in the sunshine…
If you haven’t tried Winchester Distillery’s Twisted Nose gin, it’s a must! There’s a distinctive peppery twist thanks to the use of on-site watercress being used as one of its botanicals.
The Twisted Nose watercress gin went through an evolution in 2019, the design more accurately reflecting its origins in the shallow, rippling chalk streams of Hampshire.
Do let me know if you experiment with watercress this month!