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Starters


OW HERE’S A blast from the past, for watercress is like a little bit of living human history. We’ve been eating this stuff forever: on Kos, in the year 400 BC, Hippocrates – ‘father of Western medicine’ – is said to have built his first hospital next to a stream, simply for its watercress- growing possibilities, while his near- contemporary, the general Xenophon, fed it to his soldiers to increase their battle lust. Perhaps it’s the warrior’s salad leaf of choice for, much later on, Napoleon loved it too. In Britain, meanwhile, the first


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commercial watercress farm was opened by one William Bradbery along the edges of the Ebbsfleet River in Kent; by the Victorian era, special trains would be laid on to take it up to Covent Garden, where folk would buy bunches of it to gobble in the street, like some leafy, super-healthy ice-cream cone. A Brummy lass called Eliza James was one of the real heroes here; she started out selling it as a street urchin, but would become known as ‘The Watercress Queen’ for the way she eventually dominated the market. By her death, in 1927, she was celebrated as one of the country’s most triumphant businesswomen. These days, watercress is hardly


the hot property it was, but it remains popular worldwide – and increasingly so, as the industry’s undergoing something of a renaissance. It’s now grown commercially right across the south – Wiltshire and Dorset are both big counties for it – while Alresford


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in Hampshire holds an annual Watercress Festival, attracting a good 15,000 a year. In America, meanwhile – where they have ‘capitals’ for everything – Huntsville, Alabama and a more recent upstart, Oviedo in Florida, wrestle for the crown.


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f course – as with things like wild garlic – part of the joy of


watercress is in picking your own. At this time of year, look for crisp pale stems, deep green leaves, and plants with no signs of yellowing or wilting – you’ll find it at the edges of rivers. There is an issue here, however: if there are cows or sheep nearby, there’ll also be manure, and that can mean parasites like the common liver fluke, vile little flatworm blood- suckers that can set up home in your squishy interior. Some loons claim most Americans actually carry these blighters, caught everywhere from public toilets to swimming pools – and although we, in fairness, suspect this of being cobblers, we haven’t cut open enough of them to be sure. Always cooking wild watercress – which will kill off unwelcome critters – is probably the best advice. Parasites aside, watercress is


crazy good for you, of course: there’s iron here, and calcium, iodine and vitamins galore, notably A, C and E. John Woodball, who made a fortune stocking medical chests for the East India Company and Royal Navy in the early 1600s, included it as one of his weapons in the fight against scurvy. Though they got limes wrong at the time – the Navy persevered with largely ineffective lime juice for decades, when whole lemons would have been infinitely more effective – they were on to something with watercress: modern studies also reckon it’s effective against assorted cancers, lung and breast most notably.


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he joy of watercress comes from its peppery, mustardy, slightly


bitter bite – it’s one of the most pungent, strongest tasting of all salad leaves, and a vegetable that really comes into its own when paired with richly flavoured meat: lamb, pig, a good steak and, perhaps especially, game. Mostly, we don’t need to do too much with it: just rinse, shake


dry, trim off any tough-looking roots, then serve up raw with your chosen lump of beast. In a salad, it mixes brilliantly with milder leaves, and works especially well with eggs, orange segments, or oily fish, perhaps salmon, trout or mackerel. But there’s way more you can do


with it too. Watercress makes a nice soup with potatoes (see below) – serve hot or cold – and works exceptionally well in tarts and omelettes, or wilted into pasta or stir-fries. Watercress doesn’t last long – just


a couple of days in the fridge, though standing it, like a bunch of flowers, in a pot of water can help – but you can buy it all year around; it’s at its best, however, across the warmer months, say April-September.


POTATO AND WATERCRESS SOUP (SERVES 4-6)


INGREDIENTS 25g butter 1 tbsp rapeseed oil 1 white onion, peeled and roughly chopped 2 potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped 1 large garlic clove, sliced 2 large bunches of washed watercress hot chicken or vegetable stock 100ml double cream


METHOD – Gently melt the butter and rapeseed oil in a large stock pan. Add the onions and sweat until they begin to turn translucent over a low-medium heat. – Add the chopped potatoes and garlic and coat in the oil and onions and stir until beginning to soften but not colour. – And one handful of the watercress and top with as much hot stock as is needed to cover and bring to the boil. Cook until the potatoes are soft. – And the second bunch of watercress, blitz until smooth and stir through the cream. Season heavily with salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste. – Serve with crusty bread and lots of salted butter.


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