Brilliant green, peppery watercress has been grown in the crystal clear spring waters bubbling up through the chalk downs of Hampshire and Dorset for over 150 years. It is a unique crop that literally grows in the flowing water, hence its name. The focus of the industry was in and around the Georgian Market town of Alresford where, in its Victorian heyday, the freshly harvested watercress was transported by steam railway along what became known as The Watercress Line all the way to the fresh produce markets of London. Today the Watercress Line is run by volunteers so that you can continue to enjoy the thrill of steam.
Alresford still doffs a cap to the green stuff with an annual Festival to mark the start of the UK watercress season on the third Sunday of May. A truly British, slightly eccentric event, where local children crowned King & Queen of Watercress liberally dispense bags of freshly harvested watercress from a horse-drawn cart, throwing it to the throngs of people who line the streets. The day is a celebration of watercress with food stalls selling their own special watercress inspired products, a cookery demo to show the salad leaf’s versatility, enthusiastic farmers to explain how it is grown, live music, children’s activities and the pièce de résistance – the World Watercress Eating Championships. If you feel inspired, see how quickly you can eat 85g of watercress to beat the current champion’s 32 seconds.
Scientists are also on hand at the Festival to explain the many health benefits of watercress. It has been revered since the days of Hippocrates as a health-giving plant; he is said to have built the first hospital alongside a river to ensure he had a reliable source of watercress for his patients.
Throughout the ages there are anecdotes about its health-giving properties from the Romans, to Medieval monks, the Victorians, right up to the Ministry of War in the Second World War. But it was not until the late 1990s that scientific research was seriously undertaken by the British Watercress Industry to prove that so many of the benefits our ancestors had claimed, had genuine roots in scientific fact.
Watercress is now known to contain over 50 vital vitamins and minerals; in fact, this leafy powerhouse, gram for gram, contains more calcium than milk, more Vitamin C than oranges, more folate than a banana and more Vitamin E than broccoli. More and more is being discovered about this wonder leaf including scientific proof undertaken that it can help protect against DNA damage, the cause of some cancers, much of which was undertaken at Southampton University looking into breast cancer. Further research into DNA damage has also demonstrated that watercress can improve sports performance and aid recovery after exercise. The benefits of eating watercress are countless and can be read about here, in fact, you could say it’s one of the original superfoods.
While watercress experienced a decline in the UK the 1960s, over the last 20 years it has been enjoying a renaissance. One hundred years ago, roughly 1,000 acres of watercress beds existed around the UK; today, only 150 acres remain, concentrated in Dorset and Hampshire. Walk around the peaceful lanes of Hampshire and you might come across some derelict beds with water gently bubbling up through the ruins.
However, thanks to increasing demand, The Watercress Company is developing 10 acres of new farms to start reversing the decline in UK beds with the long term aim of securing year-round supplies from UK grown crops. Until then, British watercress lovers can satisfy their needs with watercress grown on British owned and run farms in Spain and Florida.
Fly to Malaga from Southampton, and there is a 21st-century watercress line, linking the two watercress growing regions as the nearest airport to the Spanish watercress beds is Malaga!
So, what can you do with watercress? To achieve the biggest nutritional hit, it’s best to eat watercress raw – a simple salad perhaps. But there is so much more it can be used for from soups to stir-fries, wilted into pasta, added to an omelette or included in a sandwich. It was after all, a vital ingredient in the original sandwich created by the Earl of Sandwich who, in 1762, placed a slab of beef and watercress between two slices of bread to avoid having to leave his gambling table to eat.
Why not visit www.watercress.co.uk for a whole host of inspiring recipes but, if you have some ideas of your own, we’d love to hear from you and see what you can do. See #watercresschallenge to find out more.
But if you’re about to take a flight - here’s a thought. Before you leave home, whisk up a watercress, mango & pineapple smoothie to pump yourself full of goodness and help keep yourself hydrated for the journey!
Watercress, Mango and Pineapple Smoothie
Prep time: 5 minutes
65g fresh or frozen mango
135ml pineapple juice
- If using fresh mango, peel and remove the flesh. Roughly chop.
- Place all ingredients in a blender or smoothie maker.
- Blend until completely smooth.
- Serve immediately or chill to be enjoyed later.
There’s so much to see in the glorious county of Hampshire if you visit but make sure you take advantage of its epicurean jewel in the crown and enjoy some crisp, peppery watercress in hundreds of eateries in the area.