British watercress and the 'Poor Man's bread'

Steve in one of the watercress beds
'British weather is perfect for watercress' the words of Steve … my host at the watercress farm in Hampshire.
Britain is one of the few countries to grow watercress and has been for hundreds of years. As far back as the 1600's and most likely even earlier it was foraged in the wild where it grew in streams and rivers but as from 1808 it was first commercially cultivated by  William Bradbery, along the River Ebbsfleet in Kent.

The success of the watercress trade is very much entwined with the British railways. In 1865 the 'Mid-Hants Railway' or Watercress Line was opened, it connected Alresford to London giving Hampshire watercress growers the opportunity to get their crop fresh to the London markets. The delicate leaves would be picked by hand by the men and tied into bunches by the women to be placed in wicker baskets for the transport.
At London's Covent Garden watercress would be sold by street vendors who often were children. The bunches of watercress were said to have been formed into posies and eaten like that for breakfast straight away or if you were lucky to be able to afford a loaf, between two slices of bread. In Victorian Britain it was called 'the poor man's bread', it provided the working class with a good portion of nutrition for the day and became one of the first foods for on-the-go. 


The Watercress Line declined during the years of the first and second world wars and gave her final blow to watercress growers in the 1960's with the closure of the line.
Now a flourishing industry, watercress is gaining popularity again and Alresford even has a Watercress festival in may.
We now have Watercress all year round but it used to be a hardy winter crop, feeding off spring water that has a constant temperature of around 10° C, watercress is unaffected by frost. 
The clear water feeding the cress


Planting seedlings

The beds on this Hampshire farm are still the original ones from the 1800's, they are cleared each year to keep the crop healthy and follow the natural line of the river benefiting of the natural spring water. Hawks and Falcons are used to chase away stealing pigeons and bats are set free to clean the beds of small insects that could affect the health of the crop. They very much work together with nature, preserving the wildlife that likes to reside around watercress and to keep the beds chemical free.





 

University students are at the site to study this method as was Steve at one time in his life. Steve has a PhD in the nutritional physiology of watercress and his course was part funded by the watercress industry. He tells me watercress contains more vitamin c than oranges, more iron than spinach and more calcium than milk.
He himself swears by eating a few bunches, raw in his hand like the 'Poor man's bread' every day and has done for thirty years.



Steve with his 'Poor man's bread'

The watercress from Hampshire does taste perfectly peppery filling your mouth and nose with mustardy warmth and then refreshing it with the juicy stalks.
It has been a favorite on my plate for quite some time, preferring it to Rocket salad. It is so versatile, like the 'poor mans bread' straight out of your hand or just plain between two slices of bread, spicing up your soups, salads and smoothies. I can't get enough so with my precious bunches the farm kindly gifted me I had a lovely salad, a sarnie, an egg and a trout and watercress pie. (check back on friday for the trout and watercress pie)



Watercress from the Watercress Alliance is sold all over the UK in supermarkets and market stalls. Have a play with this brilliantly British crop and I assure you that it's mustardy bite will not let you go in a hurry.



The Poor man's bread

What do you need
  • British watercress
  • bread *optional*

Method

To make a slightly more luxurious 'poor man's bread' adding actual bread, bake a loaf of bread, or buy a decent loaf from a local bakery.
Cut off a couple of slices and wrap in a tea towel.
Pick out a handsome looking, crisp bunch of British watercress at a store or farmstall. Take a walk in the countryside or if you are urban, a park. Search for a perfect spot, in the sun ideally, by a lake or a stream preferably. Have a seat and a breath in deeply, hopefully all you will smell is flowers blossoming and the sweet scent of spring grass. Unpack your slices of bread on you lab and on it place the bunch of watercress, I am not washing it.
Notice the vibrant green color before you take the first bite.
Peppery warmth will fill your nose followed by the sweetness of the bread and then the fresh juiciness of the stalks.
You will wonder why you always over complicate meals when it can be so simple. You will start to think what will go beautifully with this sarnie, some light cream cheese or just a generous spread of fresh farmhouse butter ... 
From now one watercress will always be on your list, because you can't get enough.
Enjoy x

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24 comments:

  1. A wonderful and interesting post! This aquatic herb/plant/vegetable has such a unique flavor. Perfect for making sandwiches and salads.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

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    1. I agree, we should be eating a lot more of it!

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  2. This was wonderful to read, I love learning new things when I stop by here:) Steve has such a wonderful face!
    My Grandmother loved watercress...I may have to give it a try now;)
    XO
    Sarah
    Attic Lace

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    1. thank you so much, that's really sweet! Steve is a lovely guy, do give watercress a try!

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  3. So interesting! I never heard of poor man's bread, before.
    Your pictures are so beautiful, with a very greeny green ;)

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  4. I love your recipe for this, reminds me of some of Mr. Ferguson's recipes ;) Also, this is fascinating, I've learnt so much about watercress just reading this! The nutritional value is amazing and it made me think of this recent NY Times article about how modern day food has been bred out of its nutrients in favour of sweetness and how bitter foods and wild foods are more nutritious: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/opinion/sunday/breeding-the-nutrition-out-of-our-food.html

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    1. You read my mind Emiko, I was very much inspired. So happy you enjoyed the post, I have so much to say about watercress there is another post coming on friday! thanks for the link to the article, and indeed how fascinating that taste is connected to the nutrition of a plant!
      Thanks for your lovely comment as always x

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  5. A watercress sandwich sounds pretty heavenly to me! I might add a slick of salty butter too :-)

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    1. Make sure you do that walk as well, it tastes even better with the extra ingredient of fresh air ;)

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  6. <<<<Trotts off to buy some Watercress, forgot I love it, and it will go perfect withn my new health programme x Great article

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    1. Yey, do it! you will be addicted to it soon enough!

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  7. I love it - watercress is something I can't get in Dubai (well, sometimes there is something called watercress but it's Dutch and a poor relation to the British stuff). One of the first things I do when I return to UK in the summer is buy a couple of bunches and eat them raw and unadulterated. Another cracking post.

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    1. Thank you Sally and indeed the Dutch (and Belgian) variety is not to be compared to the British. Such a difference in flavour and texture! I always long for British watercress, I fascinates me ever so much.

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  8. I love watercress! As much as i love its flavors better than arugula/rocket, I reckon, the ones I get here in US do not taste nearly as good or real as the ones in UK, mostly coz these are farmed and over chemicalised

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    1. You should be ok normally as watercress needs clean spring water to grow, but the UK watercress also tastes better than the one I can buy over here. Extra clean spring water perhaps and the fact that it has been growing in that place naturally for decades. ;)

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  9. It's called poor mans bread? wow, I didn't know, that would be more our regular bread. Until recently I hadn't known about watercress, in fact I thought water cress was our cress that we use in cream spreads in central Europe. I figured that the one I know is known as Gardencress. I wonder what watercress tastes like compared to the gardencress. Thanks fro sharing!

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    1. watercress is more leafy for one, and more peppery but also fresher because of the juicy stalks ;)

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  10. Good read about watercress. I love the peppery flavour it has. And looking at your pictures, I fancy going to visit the farm!!

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    1. British watercress is the best! You can visit the farm during the watercress festival!

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  11. Pictures and writing are amazing as every time, but what captured me most was the recipe, a recipe for a perfect moment, for an experience to be enjoyed with time.
    I will have more watercress from this moment, I didn't know it was so healthy!

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    1. Thank you darling, sometimes you just have to write it as you feel it!

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  12. Since moving to the UK 25 years ago watercress has become a favourite salad and cooking leaf of mine. It's peppery tang is a superb foil for so many other foods but I also just eat it straight, too. As a cancer nutritionist and health educator I appreciate it's abundance of health-giving nutrients but I would eat it as anyway for the pleasure of its unique taste. I loved reading this article and 'meeting' Steve.

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    1. The flavour is fantastic and so versatile in use. The health benefits are an absolute bonus and not at all surprising if you've seen it grow in the clear spring waters.

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