Meet Dorset's watercress superfood souper hero
- Credit: Helen Stiles
Dorset's watercress crop is growing a little too slowly for Tom Amery MD of The Watercress Company. ‘April’s cold weather is the culprit and it’s very frustrating, but as farmers we always have to have something to moan about,’ he chuckles.
Tom is my first interviewee for my new Dorset Magazine podcast, and I can’t think of a more interesting and inspiring chap to Zoom with. Through the window behind him, the lush green watercress beds at The Watercress Company HQ at Waddock Cross near Dorchester look good enough to eat. Between May and October, Tom expects to harvest these six times. The watercress takes between three to 12 weeks to grow, depending on favourable conditions.
‘These beds have been growing watercress since the 1880s,’ he tells me. ‘It was the combination of the expansion of the railways at that time and the huge popularity of watercress, which was a staple of the working-class diet, that really made this crop take off.’ But the magic ingredient for this salad staple is the near magical properties of the water it is grown in.
This part of Dorset, as well as the area around Alresford in Hampshire, famous for its Watercress Festival (16-23 May) and home of the Watercress Railway Line, are known for their underground aquifers. The rainfall sinks underground to these aquifers where it stays for around 50 to 60 years, the weight of more water coming down pushes this water up through the chalk bedrock where it takes on all sorts of beneficial minerals, until it comes to the surface as springs.
Tom estimates that the 19 hectares of watercress beds behind him, use 50 million litres of this spring water a day. ‘This is a precious natural commodity, full of minerals. We look after it for about two hours, before it flows into the river and then down to Poole Harbour.’
The watercress takes on these minerals and that along with the constant temperature of the water, means these are ideal growing conditions. ‘What makes watercress a superfood is its nutrient density,’ says Tom. ‘Our watercress has high levels calcium, vitamin C and iron, vitamin C aids the absorption of iron. Watercress also contains an enzyme, myrosinase which is activated when fresh watercress is chewed, and this releases phytochemicals which have an array of health benefits.’
Which leads me onto one of the reasons why Tom was declared Dorset Magazine’s Food & Drink Hero. Back in 2012 he launched a project at an oncology ward at Dorset County Hospital. With the help of a nutritionist, they created a daily watercress smoothie to get those beneficial phytochemicals into an easy to digest meal for the patients. The project went down well. But delivering fresh watercress to NHS wards across the UK would be impossible, then Tom came up with an inspired idea.
‘We created a frozen block of tasty watercress soup that you can drop into hot water and blitz, so all those lovely live phytochemicals are still in it,’ says Tom. ‘We’re now working with a partner to process 50 tonnes of surplus watercress a day into these superfood soup nuggets. Our aim is to get these into hospitals across the country.’
I marvel at what this Dorset farmer has created with his team. But Tom admits that lockdown was tough for all his businesses – The Watercress Company, The Wasabi Company and Brace of Butchers in Poundbury.
‘We restructured how we worked, taking our business online, and offering home delivery. We’ve come out the other side more resilient and more relevant. Last year has been an important awakening moment for our food and drink industry, we have all connected at a local level with new customers. If you want to help businesses get back on their feet where you live, shopping locally is the fastest way to get money into the local economy.’
For a man quite literally immersed in the stuff daily, how does he consume his watercress? ‘My kids get fed up with it, I sneak it into all sorts of things at home, usually chopped up. One unusual way to eat it is to lay it out on a baking tray, grate some Parmesan on top and pop it in the oven – it has a wonderful umami flavour when cooked.’
- 1 WIN a holiday to the Isles of Scilly worth £1000
- 2 Win a 2 night beach stay at The Beachcroft Hotel in Sussex
- 3 20 of the best places to eat out in St Ives
- 4 WIN £500 worth of preloved designer clothes
- 5 Win £500 of English wine from Lyme Bay Winery
- 6 6 waterfall walks in Derbyshire and the Peak District
- 7 9 lovely beaches in Cornwall that allow dogs all-year-round
- 8 Beautiful places to go wild swimming in Suffolk
- 9 20 of the best restaurants in Hertfordshire
- 10 Win a luxury break at The Draycott Hotel in Chelsea
Has he put a bunch or two into the shopping basket of HRH the Prince of Wales? ‘Of course! He’s our landlord so he is very keen on Brace of Butchers in Poundbury, he loves the ethos of our business.’ I wonder whether a royal warrant for this peppery salad leaf could be in the offing, but Tom modestly dismisses this idea.
These days you will find his watercress in vodka, gin, chocolates, ice cream...and apparently – you read it heard first – wet wipes. ‘There’s an anti-inflammatory compound in watercress, similar to aloe vera, so we are working with a company to look at an extract of watercress to go into their wet wipes. But that’s tomorrow’s innovation!’
Right now, I would rather tuck into a Dorset watercress sandwich!
Listen to my first Dorset Magazine podcast with Tom Amery
Dorset's superfood (souper) hero here: