A Harte Appetite: Watercress
When I asked for a ticket to ride the steam train that in its heyday transported tons of the local watercress crop all the way to Covent Garden, the rather Dickensian-looking agent at the railway station in the medieval town of Alresford in Britain’s picturesque Hampshire region, told me: “Watching watercress grow is rather boring,”
Technically, I suppose, he is right, but as I discovered on a recent visit to Alresford (the United Kingdom’s capital of watercress, the quintessential British salad green and backbone of the sandwich which epitomizes English afternoon tea) watercress grows in the most idyllic of places with scenery that is decidedly not boring. Moreover, I also discovered that although watching watercress grow is admittedly not always exciting, eating it almost always is.
The people of Alresford have long known this. That’s why every year they put on a watercress festival which features the World Watercress Eating Championships. The reigning champ managed to down two bags of watercress in a mere thirty-two seconds, a record according to Guinness.
Though watercress has been an English tradition at high tea and even in school lunches for years and years, the truth is, relatively speaking, the Brits are newcomers to the plant. The ancients loved it, too.
For example the King of Persia was gorging himself on the plant nearly five hundred years before the birth of Christ.
The ancients were interested in watercress mostly for its health benefits. The Romans actually thought it could cure baldness. These days it’s even touted as a hangover cure.
The evidence for these claims, of course, is hardly conclusive, though it turns out that watercress is, indeed, something of a super food. It contains more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk, and more iron than spinach.
But watercress truly shines as a cooking ingredient. And, of course, it makes a beautiful and not at all boring garnish.
Warm Chicken and Blueberry Watercress Salad
This recipe adapted from one provided by Great Britain ’s Watercress Alliance shows off just one of the many uses of watercress.
3 tablespoon olive oil, divided
12 ounces chicken tenders
3 tablespoons pumpkin seeds
6 green onions, sliced
6 ounces blueberries
zest and juice of 1 lime
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon honey
1 bunch watercress
Cut chicken into bite sized pieces and sauté in 1 tablespoon of oil over medium heat until cooked through and golden. Add pumpkin seeds and cook until lightly toasted, about 2 minutes longer. Add onions and blueberries, mix well, and remove from heat. Combine remaining 2 tablespoons oil, lime zest and juice, Dijon mustard, and honey. Arrange watercress in a bowl and toss with dressing. Add chicken mixture and serve.