CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Dorset Magazine today CLICK HERE

Dorset's Watercress Heritage

PUBLISHED: 21:57 20 April 2010 | UPDATED: 17:03 20 February 2013

Watercess was transported all over the country by lorry during the 1920's 
photo: The Watercress Company

Watercess was transported all over the country by lorry during the 1920's photo: The Watercress Company

Dorset's Rich Culinary Heritage<br/><br/><br/><br/>A cure for baldness, a stimulant for bold ideas and a blood cleanser. Christine McFadden discovers the wonders of watercress that thrives in the gin clear spring water of Dorset

Christine McFadden discovers the rich heritage behind Dorset's original 'super food' watercress; a peppery leaf which has long been held as a cure for numerous ailments, ranging from freckles to baldness.



Crunchy, peppery watercress is one of the things that make Dorset special. It is our loveliest and most ancient salad crop, dating back to the Romans, which once provided a livelihood for dozens of small growers.

The plant grows mainly along the Dorset chalk belts, but also in neighbouring Hampshire and Wiltshire. Our relatively mild climate and mineral-rich springs provide the perfect environment for growth.

Growing naturally in the wild, watercress was traditionally foraged from streams and ditches, a practice now strongly discouraged. The hygienic product we know today is grown commercially in gravel beds bathed with a gentle flow of pure spring water from chalk aquifers deep underground.
With National Watercress Week kicking off on 16 May, I was keen to learn more about this mouth-watering crop. Who better to visit than Tim Jesty, fourth-generation watercress farmer and Technical Manager at The Watercress Company near Dorchester. Tim has another claim to fame. He is a descendant of Yetminster dairy farmer Benjamin Jesty, Dorsets pioneer of smallpox vaccination.

Tims enthusiasm is apparent as we set off to inspect the beds. He tells me his ancestors chose this particular spot a century ago, taking advantage of the crystal-clear water that comes bubbling up from a natural spring. Water control is key, he explains, opening up a small sluice gate that tops up the water levels in the beds. The site is built on a slight slope, imperceptible to the eye but sufficient to create the run-off necessary for the water to flow from bed to bed. It gushes out at a constant 10ËšC, which helps warm the beds in winter and cool them down in summer.

Our first stop is the vast, warm and slightly steamy polytunnel where 350sqm of watercress seeds have been propagated on a shallow peat base. The seeds have started to sprout, creating a veritable bowling green that stretches away into the distance. When the seedlings reach a certain size, they are lifted with a snow shovel, a square metre at a time, and transferred to the outdoor beds.

Once settled in the beds, the seedlings are left to mature. At the time of my visit, they would normally have had their first dose of fertiliser, but the unusually cold winter had set things back. You have to use instinct to know when to feed, explains Tim. Had we done so at the usual time in March, there would have been a lot of unwelcome algae growth.

Several of the beds were packed with mature watercress so lush and sprightly it was hard to refrain from grabbing a handful and eating it right away. After the first cut, the crop grows back again and again four times in all before the beds are cleaned and replanted with new seedlings. The UK season lasts from April to October; during non-productive months watercress is supplied by the companys farms in Spain and Florida.

As we strolled through the beds, Tim went though the maths. Watercress is pleasingly prolific: one square metre of seedlings produces one kilo of watercress. On a grander scale, three tons of seeds produce 800 tons over a year. Things werent always so rosy, though. Tim recalls that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, watercress was all but wiped out by crookroot disease. Many of the smaller farmers were put out of business or taken over by larger growers. The Watercress Company itself is a merger of five growers, and now has farms all over Dorset, as well as two in Spain and Florida where seed is produced. The huge refrigerated articulated vehicles in the car park give you an indication of the sheer size of the operation. Each one carries six tons of watercress and there are six of them the same-sized fleet as in the 1920s but somewhat different vehicles!

Watercress has always been surrounded with a mystique that goes way beyond the qualities normally associated with a simple plant food. The Romans believed it helped them make bold decisions. In medieval times it was thought to reverse baldness and restore fading beauty. It was also extolled as an aphrodisiac. Supposedly celibate Irish monks made a point of surviving on watercress for long periods, referring to it as pure food of wise men. Traditional healers relied on it to treat a remarkable assortment of ailments: headaches, hangovers, kidney stones, freckles, lethargy and scurvy, to name but a few.

Even today, watercresss extraordinary health properties continue to hit the headlines. Backed by sound medical research, it is hailed as a super food, packed with essential vitamins, minerals, health-promoting phyto-chemicals and antioxidants with cancer-fighting potential. Tim tells me that sales have rocketed in the past four years, thanks to well-targeted publicity and our growing awareness of health issues (and possibly the fact that celebrity beauty Liz Hurley is said to munch on watercress daily).
Long gone are the days when watercress was a token sprig on the plate, invariably pushed to one side. It adds punchy flavour to all kinds of dishes sauces and soups, omelettes and quiches, pt and herb butters. Blitzed with pine nuts and parmesan, it makes a peppery pesto for stirring through pasta or risotto. And its particularly good for offsetting the richness of fatty meats or oily fish.

I have a distant childhood memory of watercress sandwiches for Sunday tea. By no means dainty, they were made with thickly buttered slices of farmhouse bread, stuffed with fat sprigs of watercress that sprouted from the sides one of the best ways of eating it. It also makes a tasty salad with crisp strips of Belgian chicory and walnuts, or pungent slivers of red onion and immaculately sliced oranges.

After a winter of rib-sticking roasts and stews, we are ready for cleaner, peppier flavours. Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th-century herbalist, bears this out in Culpepers Complete Herbal. He writes: Water-cress pottage is a good remedy to cleanse the blood in the spring and consumes the gross humours winter hath left behind. Tim Jesty certainly fancies watercress pottage or soup its his favourite way of using it.


Watercress and Leek Soup
To preserve the brilliant green colour, add the milk and watercress mixture just before reheating and serving.


Serves 6


Large knob of butter
3-4 medium leeks, trimmed and chopped
3-4 medium potatoes, cut into small chunks
800ml chicken stock or vegetable bouillon
300ml milk
1 bunch watercress, roughly chopped
Sea salt flakes
Freshly ground black pepper


Method
Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add the leeks and potatoes, and cover them, then cook gently for 10 minutes or until beginning to soften. Pour in the stock, bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes with the lid slightly askew. Pure half the soup in a food processor or blender, and pour it back into the pan. Whizz the milk and watercress together, and add this to the pan too. Reheat gently, seasoning to taste with sea salt and a small amount of freshly ground black pepper, bearing in mind the pepperiness of the watercress.



SOURCE IT
Freshly harvested bunches can be found in farm shops situated near watercress beds. Supermarkets sell pre-washed leaves in pillow packs.
Season: Available year-round but main UK season April to October.
Buying and Storing: Look for glossy, deep green leaves. Avoid any that are limp, slimy or yellowing. Wrap unwashed bunched watercress in wads of damp paper towel and store in a sealed plastic bag in the salad drawer of the fridge. Use within 24 hours.
Preparation: Trim tough stalks but dont throw them out they come in handy for soup. Wash the sprigs in several changes of water, then drain well, shake dry and blot with paper towels.


WARNING: Dont be tempted to gather wild watercress as this may be contaminated with agricultural run-off or harbouring the liver fluke, a deadly parasite found in grazing cattle. Only use plants grown commercially in clean watercress beds.


0 comments

More from Food & Drink

8 minutes ago

When Friday night arrives you can’t beat a traditional fish supper from the local chippy. With some help from our readers and in no particular order, we pick eight great ‘plaices’ for fish and chips in Dorset

Read more
Friday, October 12, 2018

From farmhouse to country house, tea room to hotel Sue Quinn leaves no crumb untested as she seeks out some of the finest cream teas in the county

Read more
Monday, October 8, 2018

Sunday afternoons are made for lazing in a cosy pub, beer in hand and an overflowing plate of delicious roast dinner on the table. We pick 10 great places for Sunday lunch in Dorset

Read more
Monday, October 1, 2018

Fanny Charles is impressed by her lunch at Seasons at The Eastbury

Read more
Friday, September 28, 2018

Here are our Dorset Food, Drink and Farming winners for 2018; nominated and voted for by you

Read more
Thursday, September 13, 2018

You can’t beat a pub lunch after a scenic country walk with your four-legged friend. In no particular order, we pick some of the best dog friendly pubs in Dorset

Read more
Monday, September 3, 2018

Robert Ndungu, Head Chef of the award-winning pub The Acorn in Evershot, reveals what is making his tastebuds tingle as summer gives way to autumn

Read more
Monday, August 20, 2018

We are delighted to announce our 2018 finalists

Read more
Monday, July 23, 2018

Asian flavours combine with seasonal Dorset ingredients at The Ollerod - an exciting new relaxed dining venture in the heart of Beaminster

Read more
Friday, July 20, 2018

From creamy classics to inspiring new flavours of gelato, Dorset is home to some of the best ice cream parlours in the south west. With some help from our readers, we pick eight great places to indulge in a scoop this summer

Read more
Monday, July 16, 2018

Kieran Perree, scallop diver and Golden Scallop founder shares his recipe for pan fried Lyme Bay scallops

Read more
Monday, July 9, 2018

Dab caught from Abbotsbury beach cooked with lots of garlic, parsley and butter

Read more
Tuesday, July 3, 2018

You can get lobster meat from a good fishmonger, though prawns or white crabmeat works well too. The homemade mayonnaise with its lemony hit of sorrel makes this extra special

Read more
Monday, July 2, 2018

Summer is fast approaching and warm weekends are perfect for sitting in a pub garden with good beer and even better company. In no particular order, we pick ten of the best Dorset pubs with beer gardens

Read more
 
A+ South & South West

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Topics of Interest

Subscribe or buy a mag today


subscription ad

Local Business Directory

Property Search