With a long and honourable history there is much more to watercress than at first meets the eye. So much so that if the members of Britain's Watercress Alliance get their way Borough shoppers could be tucking into 'genuine' watercress protected by its own protected status. So how exactly to you spot the real thing.
Where should it come from?
Proper watercress grows, as its name suggests, in running water - a process that stretches right back to the time when Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is said to have located his first hospital beside a stream so that he could grow the cress for his patients in 400BC. However the first watercress farm in Britain arrived somewhat later opening in 1808, with cultivation methods of genuine watercress remaining almost unchanged to this day.
However recent times farmers of questionable conscience have been trying to cash in on the plant's success by passing off land-grown imitations as the real McCoy. This is what the TSG (traditional speciality guaranteed) label – the protected status that watercress growers have applied for - will aim to prevent.
How does the protected status help?
Well if you're a farmer looking to make a quick buck on the sale of imitation watercress, here's the catch - only those plants grown in and harvested from fresh, flowing spring water can be guaranteed to contain all the advertised health and flavour properties, so if members of Britain's Watercress Alliance get their way only these plants will be able to bear the name of 'watercress' in future.
Traditional watercress farmer Tom Amery points out that "if growers produce watercress on land then they should make this clear on the label so that consumers can make an informed choice about what they are buying. Our concern is that currently the customers are being deceived as they would expect the crop to be grown in spring water with all the benefits this brings to this superfood." At the time of writing British watercress farmers have successfully passed the first stage of their application for TSG protected status, one of the key labels granted by the EU to protect farming communities from cheap copies.
What are the rules?
Unlike its cousin the PDO (protected designated origin), the TSG refers not to where the product is made, but the method used to produce it – in this case, the way in which farmers harness water directly from deep springs and channel it to flow through the shallow gravel bases of their watercress beds.
The beds are gently sloping to ensure the minerals in the water are evenly distributed across the crop. Once the water's work is done, it is allowed to flow back on its original course towards the river. This ensures the watercress gets all the vitamins and minerals it needs – but it also ensures the ecology of the area it's grown in is well preserved, because the need for clean, fresh water limits the amount of heavy industry that can take place along the river's banks.
What's it like?
With its intense, peppery flavour and distinctive bite, watercress has long been the bedfellow of choice for stronger sandwich fillings. Beef and watercress, egg and watercress and salmon and watercress are all happily betrothed – although this fiery flora also makes an excellent accompaniment to main meals such as quiche and pasta.
It's not just taste that's packed into these tiny leaves however. The 14 or so vitamins and minerals packed into its leaves mean watercress easily falls into the coveted category of superfood – a label which has contributed enormously toward its popularity over the past few years – and more vitamin C per gramme than oranges, more calcium than milk and more iron than Popeye can slurp from his spinach can, its star is far from waning.