My ‘Culinary Calendar’ feature for The Arbuturian this month was about delicious, peppery, bright-as-a-button watercress. (With a recipe for a lightly creamy watercress and walnut soup which is lovely all spring and summer long served either warm or cold.)
Watercress’ interest for me stretches beyond cooking with it to how the story of these leaves has somehow – strange as it may sound at first – charted the fortunes and aspirations of our nation.
At the moment watercress taps into our modern, healthy-living mood. As more British watercress farms come to the fore, it is also appealing to our interest in small artisan producers who farm traditionally. When Waitrose ran an advertisement about one such watercress farm the sales soared by a remarkable 300%.
The last time watercress was so popular was during the World Wars when its demand was about making the most of such a usefully plentiful, home-grown and healthy crop. In the 1940s there were 1000 acres of cultivated watercress, versus only 150 acres by the end of the century. That decline says so many interesting things about how diets, lifestyles and industries changed in the 60s and 70s – and how needed the new wave of producers are.
The closure of the railway lines was also a factor in watercress’ supply diminishing. Ironic, really, as the advent of the railways and the ‘Watercress Line’ in Hampshire had been a huge factor in creating watercress’ Victorian popularity by enabling growers to get their crops out beyond the local area before it went off. Growers who thanks to industrialisation were now seeing the commercial possibilities for a crop that was abundant locally for the sheer happenstance of their area being flush with the spring-water needed to grow it.
Once the watercress got to London it was being sold on the streets by poverty-stricken ‘watercress girls’. As was the way of the time, the conditions those girls survived in were a long way from the fashionable homes where the watercress was being served. And a long way from the earthy romance of Thomas Eagle’s 1835 poem about a girl picking watercress by a mountain stream.
Its long-standing heritage and importance as a regional and national crop makes watercress worth celebrating (just as the folks of Alresford in Hampshire do each year with their Festival). And happily watercress’ flavour and versatility in the kitchen present many ways to do that. Try this watercress, orange and toasted almond salad. It is excellent with anything in the chicken line.
Watercress, orange & toasted almond salad (serves 3 or 4 as a side)
50g flaked almonds
2tbsps extra-virgin olive oil
1tbsp red wine vinegar
pinch of sugar
1. Wash the watercress in very cold water and drain thoroughly. Toast the almonds in a dry frying pan for a minute or two until lightly golden.
2. Peel the oranges making sure that you take away all of the bitter white pith. You then need to release each of the segments by cutting along the membranes with a very sharp knife. Do it over a bowl so that you catch the juices.
3. Mix together thoroughly the oil, vinegar, 2tbsps of the caught orange juice, the pinch of sugar and some salt and pepper.
4. Lightly mix the watercress with the dressing and then scatter in amongst it the orange segments and toasted almonds. Serve soon before the watercress has the chance to wilt. That has always been watercress’ problem – its tendency to wilt with barely a moment’s notice.