Alresford - The watercress captial

Famous for its annual celebrations honoring Hampshire's most popular plant, Sarah Peters visits Alresford to discover what makes the watercress produced here so special

For decades watercress was an old fashioned garnish: leafy stalks adorning dinner plates, pushed politely to the side and left. In recent years however, it has been reincarnated as a ‘superfood’: an ingredient rather than just a garnish, with claims of health, nutrition and even healing properties. Deep green in colour, with a tangy, peppery taste, watercress is distinguished by its pungent bite and is a versatile ingredient. It is related to the mustard family and its Latin name is Nasturtium Officinale, the ‘nose twister’.

HomegrownHampshire has been growing watercress for centuries and Alresford is arguably the watercress capital. The geology of the area with flat, chalky downlands is ideal conditions for the plants to thrive. Rainwater feeds through the chalky terrain and bubbles up as freshwater springs, which is rich in minerals and pure in composition. The springs create a constant flow over the gravel beds in which the plants grow.  The lush water meadows have become a vital part of the Hampshire vista. In summer, rich leafy plants spread out in neat rows: green, vibrant and glistening with droplets of water. Come winter, the atmosphere is more eerie as steam swirls and rises from the beds as the warmer spring water meets the cold air, and the plants characteristically duck their heads closer to the water to keep warm.

Fresh thinkingAlresford became the centre of the watercress industry because of its geology, but also thanks to the development of the railway link to London built in 1865. The Mid Hants Railway is also known as the Watercress Line and acquired its name because it used to transport vast quantities of watercress to Covent Garden Market. This quick and direct form of transport allowed farmers to get their produce to market quickly while the plants were still at their best. Farmers could harvest the crop in the morning, travel by horse and cart to the station, trains would transport the brimming baskets to the capital and they would be on sale in Covent Garden market the very next morning.

The AllianceThe Victorians ate watercress as a snack. They would buy a bunch from a street vendor and eat it stalk by stalk as they went about town. It was eaten in sandwiches too as breakfast and in some parts, was known as the ‘poor man’s bread.’“Watercress has a terrific history,” enthuses Dr Steve Rothwell, of the Watercress Alliance. “It has been eaten through the ages dating back to the ancient Greek, Egyptian and Roman civilizations.”Dr Rothwell is known as ‘Dr Watercress’ and has an Applied PhD in Nutritional and Environmental Physiology of Watercress, gained at the University of Bath and has worked in the watercress industry all his life. He is currently Production and Technical Director at Vitacress and an active member of the Watercress Alliance.The Alliance was formed a few years ago to promote the product and conduct research on its health and nutritional benefits. Bakkavor, Vitacress and The Watercress Company are the producers who all farm, pack, research and distribute from Hampshire. “Watercress is incredibly versatile and there is endless literature referring to its health benefits. It is unique because it is cultivated in pure, flowing spring water,” continued Dr Rothwell. “We have known for years that the special mustard oil in watercress has significant anticancer properties. This is groundbreaking research because it’s showing a correlation between watercress and the body’s susceptibility to cancer.”Within the last decade watercress has enjoyed a renaissance, not least because if its health benefits. With the ever-growing return to wholesome food, watercress is back, and deemed as one of the healthiest foods, which tastes good on its own and in cooked dishes.

The festivalWhere better to try out some watercress dishes than at the annual Alresford Watercress Festival? On Sunday, May 16, Alresford will be packed with local producers selling their wares. “The Festival takes over the whole town,” says Malcolm Phillips, of Alresford Tourism. “All sorts of people, families with children, couples, locals and visitors come and spend a day together.”The Watercress Festival has grown in popularity each year since the first event seven years ago. Malcolm is both astounded and proud at just how successful it is: “People come from miles around and the best thing about the day is that people have such a fantastic time.”There’s a Watercress King and Queen who parade down the road followed by a cavalcade made up of a horse and cart loaded high with the newly harvested crop. There’s dancing, singing, children’s activities and general merriment through out the day.  The highlight is the street-load of stalls that come to the festival to sell their wares, as Alex Handford, Business Manager of the Hampshire Farmers’ Markets explains: “All the producers who belong to the Farmers’ Market are encouraged to get creative to think up some produce that includes watercress. It adds a little bit more interest to the event if they get into the spirit of the day,” he says. “Plus it means we get to try interesting new cakes, sausages, bread and sauces that include watercress. It’s amazing what they come up with. I always look forward to trying some of the produce.”

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