Not only is it getting a reputation as a nutrient-rich superfood, watercress is far more versatile than you would think, says former Sienna chef-proprietor Russell Brown
The first commercial production of English watercress dates back to the 1800s. However, the vibrant green leaves with a pepper/mustard kick that we know today were originally rogue plants that were reddish-bronze in colour.
In the early years, propagation was from plant cuttings, with the move to seeds and the green variety a result of a disease problem in the 1940s and 1950s. Crook rot caused huge problems in the industry and the rogue green plants proved to be significant in solving the issue.
The watercress industry saw a similar decline as Yorkshire rhubarb, due to the disease, an increase in foreign imports and the cuts in rural rail services. In Hampshire there is a railway line, now restored, that is still known as the Watercress Line. At the height of production, over 30 tons of watercress would be carried by train every week from the town of Alresford to the London markets.
Although the industry had shrunk considerably, through the 1960s and 1970s the growing of watercress became more commercially focused, with production in Portugal and Spain supplying much of the UK's winter demand.
April is traditionally the start of the season, and six to seven crops can be harvested from UK beds in the summer, dropping to three or four in the winter. UK production would need to increase dramatically to make us self-sufficient. It is estimated that consumption is around five million kilos per annum with production currently at about 2.2 million kilos.
The peppery taste of watercress is due to the mustard oils in the plant. This oil is known as Phenethyl isothiocyanate or PEITC, which has been linked to cancer prevention and is helping watercress gain prominence as a so-called ‘superfood'. Gram for gram, watercress contains more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach and more folate than bananas.
Talking to Tom Amery from the Watercress Company in Dorset recently, the conversation focused on water quality, reduction in fertiliser usage and links with the Environment Agency. As a company, it has become less yield-focused and more driven by social responsibility to reduce its environmental impact. A huge amount has been achieved by reducing plant density, better water management and more attention to the timing of fertiliser applications, and the company has a new production facility that covers four hectares that will be coming on line soon.
Of the watercress the company sells, 65%-70% is sent to national retailers and the remainder is delivered to wholesalers, local sales, box schemes and the sandwich market. Alongside this, a small but interesting part of the sales figures are from niche markets, such as watercress powders, gin and salami.
Paul O'Neill, former Roux scholar and head chef at Berwick Lodge near Bristol, suggested using it in a pesto for a spring dish of braised lamb shoulder, asparagus, broad beans and watercress pesto mash, while Andy Wright, head chef at the Pig on the Beach in Dorset, likes red watercress with a salad of beetroot and rhubarb. The red watercress is a modern version of the original bronze cress.
Buying and storage tips
- Buy from watercress Code of Practice farms to reduce risk of any contamination
- Purchase as often as possible - four times per week ideally -to get the freshest crop
- Don't confuse watercress with upland cress
- The UK crop is best in the spring and summer - expect to buy imported crop from October to June
- Avoid sprigs where the lower leaves are yellowing
- Maintain a temperature of 2-4Â°C refrigeration in a non-drying atmosphere
- Wash as late before use as possible
Watercress supplied by www.thewatercresscompany.co.uk
Watercress and onion bhajis
For the bhajis
- 2 onions, finely sliced and salted for 30 minutes
- 1 clove of garlic, minced
- 1 green chilli, finely sliced
- 1tsp mustard seeds, toasted and ground
- 1tsp ground cumin
- 100g gram flour
- 25g rice flour
- 5g fine ground Maldon salt
- 25g plain yoghurt
- 5g dijon mustard
- Water, to mix
- 80g picked watercress, chopped
- Sea salt and black pepper
Rinse the onions and squeeze dry, and then mix in the garlic and chilli. In a separate bowl, sift the dry ingredients and spices together. Make a well in the centre, add the yogurt and mustard and mix in enough water to create a thick batter. Fold in the onion mix and finally the chopped watercress. Season to taste.
Deep-fry small dessertspoonfuls of the mix at 160Â° for around four minutes, turning occasionally. Test a bhaji to check the seasoning.
For the raita
- 1 Granny Smith apple
- 100ml natural yogurt
- 1tsp fresh ginger, grated
- 1tsp mustard seeds, toasted
- 20g picked watercress, chopped
- Maldon sea salt
Peel the apple and grate on a coarse grater into the yogurt. Add the spices and watercress and season to taste.
The addition of watercress to a classic hollandaise gives another dimension to the sauce, with its peppery flavour being balanced by the butteriness. It is a suitable alternative to a béarnaise with steaks and works equally well with fish and egg dishes.
- 100ml white wine
- 100ml cider vinegar
- 4 whole black peppercorns
- Â½ tsp mustard seeds
Combine all the ingredients in a pan, reduce by half and then strain.
- 100g watercress
- 50ml vegetable oil
- Pinch of Maldon sea salt
Purée the watercress with the oil and season.
- 4 egg yolks
- 1tbs hot water
- 250g clarified unsalted butter, kept at around 70Â°C
- Vinegar reduction to taste
- Watercress purée to taste
- Maldon sea salt
- Lemon juice
In a bowl over a pan of simmering water, whisk the egg yolks with the water until the mix is thick and foamy. Be careful not to scramble the eggs.
Remove from the heat and gradually whisk in the butter to create a thick mayonnaise consistency. Add the reduction and purée to taste, then season with salt and lemon juice as required.
The British watercress season usually runs from April until November, but supplies can be affected by heavy frosts.
Expect to pay about £1.50-£1.70 per 100g bag of conventionally-grown watercress.
Watercress will only grow in completely unpolluted water, so it probably isn't worth paying extra for organic.
Russell Brown ran the Michelin-starred, three-AA-rosette Sienna restaurant in Dorchester, Dorset, for 12 years with his wife Eléna. He launched his website and consultancy business Creative about Cuisine last year. He specialises in restaurant consultancy and photography www.creativeaboutcuisine.com
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