The ways of watercress

I like watercress. I like it in sandwiches, sometimes as a single filling, sometimes with Wensleydale or Cheshire cheese. I put it in stir-fries and salads—it plays well with beetroot. I make watercress lasagne, and of course, soup.

‘Watercress is a leafy paradox,’ says a 2006 Australian Government report into the potential for its production. ‘Cool when first experienced and then hot, when chewed.’

As that report points out, watercress is not widely used in this country. In Europe and Asia it’s a popular vegetable sold in shops and markets, but in Australia and New Zealand it is more likely to be encountered as a weed.

Watercress has been part of the culinary repertoire for a long time. It was prized by the ancient Greeks and Romans. It’s mentioned in a play by Aristophanes (Clouds). The Romans ate it with oil and vinegar and believed its consumption promoted clarity of thought and bold decision-making.

Although watercress was first cultivated in Germany during the sixteenth century, it wasn’t farmed commercially in Britain until the nineteenth. The development of the railway system made it possible to transport carriage-loads of the plant from beds in England’s southern counties to London’s Covent Garden Market. A food of the poor, watercress helped at least one poor girl make her fortune. Eliza James, who earned the nickname the Watercress Queen, began her business career at the age of five hawking bunches of the wild stuff to factory workers. She ended up with a near monopoly supplying the vegetable to London’s restaurants and hotels.

‘I am sorry I cannot give the name of the public benefactor who introduced this wholesome and useful plant [watercress] into our Queensland streams,’ said Mr F M Bayley in a paper read at the Linnaean Society in 1879. ‘But I may take the opportunity of stating that it was propagated in the South Australian watercourses in about 1842 by Mrs S Davenport, a lady who took great interest in horticulture, and to whom the colony is indebted for the introduction of many useful plants.’

A decade later, in another paper, this one entitled Blunders in Acclimatisation, horticulturalist William Clarson wrote ‘Many years ago, seeds of the common watercress were given away from several of the botanic gardens in the colonies, to induce settlers to sow the banks of the creeks and rivers.’

‘Watercress stands alone. It is not quite so individual as celery, but there is nothing to rival it in its own domain.’ In 1896 the Maitland Daily Mercury waxed lyrical. ‘It is eloquent of the charm of its native environment. Nothing else … speaks or sings to the eater, as watercress does, of cool streams and overhanging banks and lush herbage … The spirit of the rivulet abides in its heart.’

How watercress arrived in Australia remains open to debate. Likewise whether it was a deliberate or accidental introduction—or some combination of both. A member of the mustard family Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum, also known as Nasturtium officinale, is found in waterways, wetlands, drains and irrigation channels—pretty much anywhere damp and not too hot, in fact. At one stage it was declared a noxious weed in Queensland and it’s here in the 2011 edition of Weeds of the South East as widespread in all states.

In many parts of Australia the spread of watercress was curbed by periodic drought. But in cooler, rainier New Zealand watercress thrived unchecked. Such an obstruction did it become that the Province of Canterbury passed the Watercress Ordinance, 1864. Despite stiff penalties for people who ‘wilfully cut loosen or dislodge watercresses or other weeds in or from any river or stream or the banks of any river or stream’ the plant remained a huge problem. Its ‘leaves growing as large as those of a water lily, and the stems as thick as those of a man’s wrist,’ according to Wellington’s Evening Post. While another newspaper complained: ‘The watercress of our breakfast tables, in Europe a mere casual brook-side plant, chokes the New Zealand rivers with stems twelve feet long, and costs the colonists of Christchurch alone £300 a year in dredging their Avon free from it.’

Unlike those nineteenth century New Zealanders I don’t see watercress as a breakfast food. For me it’s a lunchtime sandwich. Or Alexandre Dumas’s winter salad. The author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, by all accounts a fine cook, also penned a Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine (Great Dictionary of Cooking). ‘Le cresson de fontaine est aussi une salade d’hiver, et on l’assaisonne habituellement avec des tranches de betteraves et quelques filets d’olives tournés.’ Watercress is also a winter salad, and is usually seasoned with slices of beetroot and some pitted olives.

I’ll say it again: I like watercress. I like its reliable pepperiness and I like its link with southeast England where I grew up. My mother was an avid forager and I have fond memories of wading into streams with her to gather wild watercress. (If you do pick it wild be careful. If cattle and sheep graze nearby it may host a parasite known as liver fluke and will need cooking or very thorough washing. Mum put vinegar in the water and soaked her wild cress for 10-15 minutes.)

I think my favourite way of eating watercress is as a soup. A lot of recipes use flour and cream or other dairy products. I thicken mine with potatoes. Sauté a diced onion in olive oil and a little butter (omit the butter for a vegan version), add a crushed clove of garlic. While the onions cook, cut up 2 large potatoes and put them into the pot. Add vegetable stock, some parsley, salt, lots of pepper, nutmeg to taste, and cook until the potatoes are soft. Rinse your watercress (you need a couple of bunches) and discard any thick stems. Long cooking robs watercress of its punchy bite, so I blanche it then add it to the pot for just a couple of minutes’ cooking. I use a stick blender to liquidise it—but not too much, I like my watercress soup with a bit of texture.