Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Watercress and Wine

Watercress is back in season and Alresford, near Winchester, is holding its 9th Watercress Festival on Sunday May 19th. Watercress was first commercially cultivated in 1808 by the horticulturist William Bradbery along the source of the River Ebbsfleet in Kent. His watercress was sent to Covent Garden and Newgate Markets in London and he even sent watercress to the Great Exhibition of 1851 at The Crystal Palace. Watercress production soon spread and counties that grew watercress commercially included Hertfordshire, Wiltshire, Dorset and Hampshire.

Alresford is the centre of watercress growing in Hampshire and more than 15,000 people visit the festival every year. This May the festival is home to plenty of mouth-watering watercress treats to tempt the tastebuds ranging from watercress ice cream and cakes to watercress beer and soup. You will also find street entertainment, Morris dancers, bands and artisanal stalls selling everything from watercress fudge to watercress sausages!

Watercress is a fast-growing, semi-aquatic plant that is one of the oldest known leaf vegetables consumed by humans. It's a member of the same family as Garden Cress, Mustard and Radish – all known for their peppery, tangy flavour. Watercress has always had a reputation for being a 'super food' – the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Persians used it to strengthen and energise themselves as well as for medicinal purposes:

  • The father of medicine, Hippocrates, founded the first hospital on the Greek island of Kos around 400 BC and grew wild watercress in the natural springs there, using it to treat blood disorders.
  • Egyptian Pharaohs served freshly squeezed watercress juice to their slaves each morning and afternoon in order to increase their productivity.
  • Roman emperors ate it to help them make 'bold decisions' (and to cure baldness and insanity).
  • The Persian King Xerxes ordered his soldiers to eat watercress to keep them healthy during their long marches.

In the 16th century the herbalist John Gerard recommended watercress as a cure for scurvy. Captain James Cook (1728 – 1779) was reportedly able to circumnavigate the globe due, in part, to combating scurvy through the use of watercress in his sailors’ diets. It's not surprising as watercress contains more Vitamin C than oranges do, has more iron than spinach, more calcium than milk and more Vitamin E than brocoli.

The plant’s heyday was in Victorian times as the development of the railway allowed tons of watercress to be transported up to London. Street sellers would buy it and form it into bunches, which were eaten in the hand, like an ice cream cone – the first “on the go food”.  Nowadays watercress is being recognised once again as a 'super food' with scientific research highlighting all sorts of benefits from helping to battle cancer to getting rid of your wrinkles.

Watercress is now enjoying a boom and you can find lots of different and inventive recipes using it. It's best to buy your watercress from a reputable source as picking wild watercress carries the danger of liver fluke. Watercress is readily available in shops and farmers markets – there is also a red tinged variety that looks great in salads – but make sure it wash it thoroughly before use. Shop bought watercress can vary in strength of flavour depending on the season and where it has been grown, so it's best to take a little nibble first so that you can judge how much seasoning to add before using it in your recipes.

Watercress Soup

2 bunches of watercress (de-stalked and chopped)

450g potatoes ( peeled and finely diced)

1 litre vegetable stock

freshly ground black pepper, nutmeg and salt (to taste)

A dollop of double cream (optional)

Sprig of watercress to garnish

Add all the ingredients into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Let the soup boil for 30 minutes and then remove from the heat. Once cooled you can blend the soup in a liquidiser until smooth. Return the soup to the pan to heat through, serve with a sprig of watercress to garnish.

Wine Pairing:

Fleur de Luze 2009 (100% Sauvignon Blanc) - A lovely, lively, fresh and fruity white wine from Maison A. de Luze et Fils, who have been pioneers in the wine trade since 1820. This wine is a clear, crystalline pale gold colour with a very clean citrus, lychee, and mango bouquet. It has a long, fruity after taste which follows through with a slight hint of ripe grapefruit and a refreshingly slight touch of fizz.


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