Ahead of her demo, Paula McIntyre talks about the decline of English watercress—and why we should all get behind its comeback
In a world where buying lettuce trapped in a plastic bag is the norm, it’s comforting to think that there’s an indigenous leaf that’s still cultivated in a traditional way, albeit on a reduced level. The Georgian town of Alresford in Hampshire was at the epicentre of the watercress industry when the ‘watercress line’ train to London opened up. Watercress farms popped up throughout the county to cater for the demand from the capital city.
In the 1800s, this robust leaf was a staple of the working class diet, partly due to the fact it could be picked for free from rivers and streams. By the 1960s, the train line had closed due to diminished demand and increased production costs. Sadly, by the 1980s, 90 per cent of the traditional growers had left the industry.
Imagine the last century here—wood panelled hotel dining rooms, gaudy carpet on the floor and slightly pompous, bow tie bedecked waiters. A trolley appears with a proud prime rib of beef on top, adorned with a garland of watercress. Rare roast beef, this peppery verdant cluster and classic bearnaise sauce should never go out of fashion, even if the surroundings do.
Rare roast beef
As a down-at-heel young chef in London in the late eighties, I treated myself to lunch at Simpson’s in the Strand. To my chagrin, none of my friends would accompany me—they were too enthralled with Chicago Rib Shack. I can vividly remember the rare roast beef, buttery, rich béarnaise sauce and the peppery punch of the watercress.
This leafy treasure was usurped in the 1990s by ubiquitous rocket. Suddenly we eschewed something real and innately English in favour of a fancy upstart. Yes rocket is also peppery, but it never quite matched up in terms of punch. Also, with watercress, you get two bites at the cherry—silky leaves coupled with snappy, crisp stalks.
Watercress is a versatile accompaniment and ingredient in many dishes. As well as being the perfect foil to sweet, grilled meats, it can be used as a main salad ingredient. Its heat makes it a perfect match for cooling crisp apples, pears, soft cheeses, crunchy nuts, eggs and oily fish. Smoked trout and watercress is a classic starter, but I like to mix it up a bit by making a chilled watercress soup topped with flaked smoky fish and a slick of watercress oil.
Grüne sosse is a German condiment made by blending watercress and other herbs with buttermilk and sour cream. It’s as delicious on a grilled steak as it is on some roasting vegetables or simple toasted sourdough. Whizz watercress into a simple veloute sauce to have with some roast hake or poached salmon. Its piquant zing will pep-up myriad dishes.
Happily, we are starting to rediscover and celebrate this historical leaf, and it is now back on menus where it rightly belongs. The small number of traditional Hampshire growers in the UK need to be supported and with this in mind, are on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste to protect forgotten foods. Their ethos of “don’t lose me… cook me” has never applied more.
The ‘watercress line’ train is now running again as a tourist attraction. The golden age of watercress might be behind us, but we need to nurture what’s left for future generations.
Join Paula for tips, tastings and recipes this Friday 22nd June in the Market Hall, 1-2:30pm