I know what you’re saying “Huh, watercress?” I said the same thing when a dear friend suggested that “watercress” could be an interesting topic for my blog. “But, watercress? Whatever could watercress have to do with the U.K. which would make it unique or interesting?” The only association I could make was, of course, tea sandwiches. But after watching an episode of the fascinating PBS series, VICTORIAN SLUM HOUSE, suddenly watercress seems as if it could be an interesting topic. And now after doing my research, I’m writing about … “watercress”.
Watercress is known to have been growing wild along shallow wetland areas in the Mediterranean since before recorded time. It has been cultivated in that region since 500 B.C. The botanical name for watercress is “Nasturtium Officinale” or “twisted nose” and with its pungent, mustardy tang, the flavor sort of makes you do that … wrinkle your nose.
Artaxerxes, the king of Persia (Iran today), loved watercress and ordered his soldiers to eat this cruciferous greenery to keep them healthy during their long marches. The ancient Romans and Greeks believed that this aromatic plant would give you courage, strength and character. Although they didn’t know it then, watercress is rich in vitamins and essential minerals like iodine, sulpher, iron and vitamin C, and it is part of what today we call “super foods”. I do believe, however, that Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, knew all this when he built his first hospital on the Greek island of Kos alongside a stream where wild watercress grew. Hippocrates was a strong believer that disease had natural causes and he used various plant-based remedies to treat his patients … referring to “watercress” as the “cure of all cures”.
Watercress is very easy to grow, so as people migrated north, the seeds traveled with them … from the Middle East to Italy, Germany and ultimately to the U.K. Slowly, British aristocracy began to recognize the value of eating this spicy micro-green. Scientist, philosopher and statesman, Francis Bacon, touted the belief that eating watercress would “restore youth to ageing women”. The most notable botanist in London, John Gerard, recommended watercress as a remedy for, among other ailments, gallstones and, more importantly, scurvy. Because of this recommendation, Captain James Cook added watercress in the diet of his sailors, and as a result, was able to circumnavigate the world three times.
The first British crop was grown in Kent in 1808 by an enterprising entrepreneur, William Bradbury, who saw the potential of this diminutive plant. With each successful crop, he would gather the cress and take it to the London markets to sell. It was during the Victorian era when the plant’s popularity really soared. If you’ve been watching the VICTORIAN SLUM HOUSE series on PBS, now you know how and when I had that “ah ha” moment. Thousands of people living in London during the Victorian era were living in abject poverty. Because of the ever-growing population and the huge influx of imported goods, with no money and little work available, women and children took to the streets selling whatever they could to survive.
In the center of London was the Farringdon market. Not as large as Covent Garden, but a rather expansive market for food wholesalers, most of whom were selling watercress to these street urchins, now known as ‘watercress sellers’. Each day, hundreds of watercress sellers, mostly young girls, dressed in rags and shoeless, but armed with their wicker baskets, would line up before dawn at the entrance to this market, waiting for the iron gates to open. When that moment came, they would run to the stalls to be the first to get their watercress for that day, hopefully before the cress was gone. Then these young watercress sellers would walk the streets each and every day, regardless of the weather, selling bunches of watercress … to the working man who would eat it on the way to his job, or delivering fresh watercress to the homes of the middle class for their cleansing ‘watercress soup’. Known as the ‘poor man’s bread’ “Fresh wo-orter-creases here” was heard as early as 5am.
One street urchin became a legend in the watercress trade and was nicknamed “The Watercress Queen”. Eliza James, at the age of five, was given 40 bunches of watercress each day, by her family, to sell to the workers in the factories in Birmingham. For years, little Eliza would rise before dawn, go down to the factories, selling more and more watercress. Moving from Birmingham to London, as she grew into adulthood, Eliza’s drive and determination continued. Still selling watercress, she began buying watercress farms, one after another. At the time of her death in 1927, Ms. James was the biggest owner of watercress farms anywhere in the world, handling up to 50 tons of watercress in just one weekend. She was the only watercress supplier to nearly every hotel and restaurant in London, and still with all that success every morning, before dawn, up to the day she died, Eliza James would be at her stall at Covent Garden market selling watercress. The Daily Mirror reported: “… by selling watercress (this) is surely one of the most wonderful romances of business London has ever known”.
In 1861, the Winchester Railway Company built a new railway to connect London and Southampton. Although it was primarily a military transport, it also moved goods, mainly watercress … from the nation’s watercress capital of Alresford to London. The railway transported so much watercress it was soon lovingly referred to as The Watercress Line. Today, thanks to the selfless endeavors of many volunteers, the railway is open as a museum and tourist attraction in the market town of Alresford.
The watercress industry continued to thrive during both World Wars. Watercress was a staple ingredient … in schools, at home, and, of course, at “afternoon tea”. In the 1940s more than 1,000 acres of watercress were under cultivation in the U.K. Unfortunately, by the end of the 20th century, less than 150 acres remain.
Realizing the nutritional value of watercress, small U.K. farmers have joined together to bring awareness to this once great British ingredient. Each spring Alresford, the “watercress capital of the U.K.”, holds a Watercress Festival highlighting this versatile and delicious veg … with cooking demonstrations, watercress eating contests, a parade and, of course, the crowning of a watercress queen.
A promotional campaign, “Not Just a Bit on the Side”, was launched in 2003, in the hopes of spurring interest in this, the original super food. Packed with essential vitamins and minerals, gram for gram, watercress contains more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach and more folate than bananas. Current scientific research has shown that the high levels of antioxidants can increase the ability of cells to resist damage to their DNA, helping to protect against the cell changes that can lead to some diseases. Perhaps Francis Bacon was right!
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References: Cambridge World History of Food, History of Food, BQ Quality Growers, Food Timeline, Wikipedia, The Victorianist, Geri Walton, Watercress Queen, Watercress Festival, Watercress Line