Let me tell you a story about a strong independent woman, a working class woman who became one of the most iconic figures in British food history. Her name was Eliza James and she was called 'The Watercress Queen'.
In the late 1800, the little Eliza went from factory to factory in Birmingham with her bunches of wild watercress. As 'the poor man's bread' was so popular with the working class she soon started to sell larger and larger quantities. She worked her way up and moved her business to London where she soon became the favoured supplier of nearly all the London restaurants and hotels. She was able to acquire watercress farms in Hampshire and Surrey making her the biggest owner of watercress farms in Europe. But even when she became part of a well-to-do class, she remained to work at her Covent Garden stall for over 50 years.
Steve - who you might remember from last weeks post - explained that Eliza founded the James & Son company and trade marked the name Vitacress, the name Vitacress was then sold on to Malcolm Isaac who founded Vitacress Salads which is the name of the company today. Eliza's Hampshire farms are still producing watercress to this day and are still a part of Vitacress. The farm I visited was one of the original farms and made me think about Eliza James and her hard work. I think she deserved her title and isn't it just one of the most romantic stories of a working class woman trying to build an emporium out of watercress, to do well by herself and her family.
|The stream that feeds the watercress beds|
|Steve and his Poor Man's bread from previous post|
With my last bit of watercress from the farm in Hampshire I opted to bake a silky smooth fish pie. The river that feeds the watercress beds in Hampshire is full of brown trout so when I was at my fishmonger I opted for trout. With my only option being Steelhead trout today, the meat resembling more that of a salmon though less strong tasting and more delicate. I don't care for salmon at all and avoid it where I can, unless cured, I do like salmon cured..
Water is so very important to watercress, it has to be clean spring water. The watercress leaves and stalks seem to be holding the water tightly, hanging on to all the goodness is has to offer.
Thank you Steve for showing me around, it was lovely meeting you!
For the filling
- 1 teaspoon butter / 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 2 small celery sticks cut into small cubes
- 1 shallot cut finely
- 25 ml white wine
- Roux, enough to bind the sauce: see how you make it on this post >
- 400 ml water
- 1 large handful of fresh watercress chopped
- 2 trout filets or salmon if you rather use thatpotato 1 cup of 1 cm cubes
For the Rough puff pastry
- 225 g plain flour
- 1/4 teaspoon of sea salt
- 125 g unsalted butter in small cubes, fridge cold
- 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
- about 125 ml ice cold water
For the pastry
- Sift the flour and salt into a bowl
- Add the cubes of cold butter and stir using a round bladed knife until all the butter is covered in the flour - do not break up the pieces of butter at this point
- Add the lemon juice and the water, one tablespoon at a time (you might not need it all) to bind the mixture into a lumpy dough with a wooden spoon or spatula, if the dough is too wet add some flour
- Turn the dough out on a clean lightly floured work surface and shape it gently into a brick, do not overwork the dough with your hands as it needs to stay cold
- Use a floured rolling pin to roll out the dough to a rectangle from about 5 mm thick
- Fold the dough in 3 by folding the bottom third up to cover the middle part of the dough and the top part you should fold down to cover the other 2 folded parts.
- Seal the edges firmly by pressing them down
- Wrap in cling film and put in the fridge for 15 min
- Take the dough out of the fridge and place it on a floured work surface, turn the dough so you can now do the same folding routine but in the other direction
- Repeat this process two more times so you have folded the dough in different directions 4 times
- Chill for 30 min before using or while you prepare the filling
- Melt the butter and the olive oil in a pan big enough so your trout fillets can fit in nicely.
- Soften the onion and the celery for 5 minutes and add the wine, let it simmer for 5 minutes
- Pour in the water and bring to a gentle boil, leave to simmer for 5 minutes
- Gently place the trout fillets in the saucepan, make sure they are both covered with the liquid
- Let it simmer for 15 minutes until flaky but not completely done.
- Turn down the heat and remove the trout, put on a plate and cover with tinfoil to keep warm.
- Transfer the liquid to a deeper saucepan and bring to the boil
- Add the roux and cook until thickened
- If the sauce is too liquid, add more roux if you have some left or let it reduce on a medium fire while stirring
- Taste your sauce and add salt and pepper to taste.
- Now mix the sauce for 1 minute using a hand mixer with a chopping knife appliance
- Blanche the potato cubes briefly, they should still be quite rare
- Chop the watercress (with stalks) roughly
- Butter your pie dish and place in the blanched potato cubes and flake over the trout fillets, sprinkle over a few leaves of chopped watercress.
- Add the rest of the watercress to the sauce and simmer for a further minute
- Pour the sauce over the trout and potato and mix gently with a spoon so the sauce is evenly divided
- Remove the pastry from the fridge and roll it out on a floured surface until around 2cm larger than the pie dish.
- Brush the edge of the dish with beaten egg and lay the pastry over the filling.
- Trim off any excess pastry using a sharp knife, and knock up the edges with the back of a knife to create indentations.
- At this point you can decorate your pie with the leftover dough
- Brush lightly with beaten egg
- Bake your pie in a preheated oven at 200°c for about 25 minutes or until the pastry is golden brown.
You might also like
Stout, beef and oyster pie - poverty and oysters
The Poor man's bread - a day at a watercress farm