Dorset's Watercress Heritage

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, Dorset’s pioneer of smallpox vaccination.Tim’s 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 10˚C, 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 company’s 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 weren’t 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, watercress’s 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, p�t� and herb butters. Blitzed with pine nuts and parmesan, it makes a peppery pesto for stirring through pasta or risotto. And it’s 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 Culpeper’s 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 – it’s his favourite way of using it.

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

Serves 6

Large knob of butter3-4 medium leeks, trimmed and chopped3-4 medium potatoes, cut into small chunks800ml chicken stock or vegetable bouillon300ml milk1 bunch watercress, roughly choppedSea salt flakesFreshly 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. Pur�e 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.

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SOURCE ITFreshly 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 don’t 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: Don’t 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.

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