Watercress: Britain’s Leaf
Until I moved to England, I don’t think I had ever encountered watercress. It certainly wasn’t part of my Midwestern childhood (in which the only leaf that ever graced our table was iceberg lettuce). Watercress didn’t make an appearance in my life on the East Coast either, although I’m sure it was available.
In England, watercress is ubiquitous in little tea sandwiches of what Americans call “egg salad,” hard-boiled eggs with mayonnaise. This is baby “cress,” delicate and tiny, available living in little pots of dirt in the produce section of every English supermarket. It grows up to be real watercress, deep, dark green with strong but edible stalks. It’s seriously peppery and full of flavor.
Watercress is available in the UK via private organic growers like John Hurd in Dorset, bigger concerns like The Watercress Company, and the biggest of them all – major suppliers of all leafy salads to British supermarkets – Alresford Salads in the heart of watercress-growing land, Hampshire. You can even take a charming journey on the Watercress Line, a train trip that follows the traditional route from Hampshire to London via which tons and tons of watercress was transported from the country fields to the big city.
In the United States, the flag for watercress is flown by B&W Watercress, who supply Whole Foods and many other markets across the country. After all, watercress was recorded as having been served at the very first Thanksgiving! Why not serve it with your turkey this year?
Watercress is really the ultimate superfood. It’s higher in calcium than milk, higher in Vitamin C than oranges, similar to spinach in levels of Vitamin A. It contains almost no calories and, of course, no fat. But best of all, it’s deliciously strong and able to stand up to lots of other energetic flavors like smoked fish and root vegetables.
I adore watercress, whether it’s in a creamy soup flecked with fresh nutmeg, a complex salad with honey roasted ham, beets and Stilton cheese, or pesto made with hazelnuts and lemon. Best of all, I love to serve it in place of spinach or baby leaves as a bed for the ultimate shrimp dish, the little tempura treasures bathed in a creamy, spicy sauce inspired by famed chef Nobu Matsuhisu. Simplest of all, there’s the classic breakfast once eaten by Covent Garden’s famed greengrocers, called “the poor man’s bread” because it was simply eaten by the handful! You, though, can pile it on a whole-grain baguette thickly spread with butter (I like Somerset butter), and there’s nothing better.
Once you’ve replaced other leaves with watercress, you’ll find yourself addicted to its bold, lively personality and bite. There are endless ways for you to use this energetic and nutritious leaf!
In the last 20 years, however, Britain’s favorite leaf has been on the decline in popularity. Although some Britons now prefer the trendier European leaves like rocket (arugula in the US) or radicchio to their homegrown green, watercress is seeing a revitalization in sales and popularity. So, get your hands around some bold, lively watercress and get eating! You’ll feel the life-giving properties stirring through your blood, and you’ll be helping to keep up the reputation of a British national treasure, wherever you happen to live.
Photo Credit: Avery Curran
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