Watercress Ways

In which Andy discusses what a vegetable can teach us about the English landscape. Oh, and there's a recipe.

It may have passed you by, but last week was Watercress Week.

Bicycle Beano HQ is in the heart of watercress country and our South Downs Beano in June takes you on a ride through the countryside where it grows. (A few spaces still available, by the way.) So as I sat scoffing a watercress scone at the coffee stop on my Sunday morning ride, I started pondering the link between this magical plant and the landscape and history of this beautiful part of Southern England.

Where’s all the water?

First, though, let’s talk about rivers. Or rather, the lack of rivers.

Here in Hampshire we have no shortage of rolling green hills, yet up on the hillsides, there’s no water. No bubbling streams, no little waterfalls cascading down crevices, no pools or ponds. Go to most other hilly parts of Britain and you’ll find networks of streams trickling down the slopes, gradually merging into bigger streams and rivers. Here on the Downs, nothing. Yet down in the valleys there are rivers galore, most of them running  southwards through the flat coastal areas into the English Channel and the Solent. So where do they come from?

The answer is in the soil.

The South Downs are a fairly new invention. Back in the Cretaceous Period (75-90 million years ago), southern England was a shallow tropical sea. Over time the remains of marine organisms accumulated on the sea bed, creating thick layers of chalk mud.

Then some 65 million years ago, there was a dramatic head-on collision between Africa and Europe. (We’re talking geological timescales here, so the reverberations of that collision are still going on today. The insurance claim is going to be huge.)  The impact caused great folds of land to rise up across the continent, leading to the creation of some of Europe’s great majestic mountain ranges: the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Carpathians and – er – the South Downs. (Also the North Downs, but we don’t talk about them. Splitters.)

So in southern England we ended up with ranges of hills made mostly of porous chalk, with the harder, waterproof layers much lower down. When rain hits the top of these hills it sinks into the chalk. As the water percolates down through the hill it is naturally filtered, finally accumulating in underground lakes – aquifers – at the foot of the downs. 

Cold springs

Eventually the pressure of more water arriving from above forces some of the liquid to burst out through cracks in the valley floor, creating the springs that feed Hampshire’s rivers. To us the water table isn’t just a half-forgotten term from geography lessons, it’s something that’s inches beneath us. When the local primary school flooded during the wet winter of 2000, it wasn’t from the river breaking its banks: instead, springs literally popped up through the floors in the classroms and the tarmac in the playground.

The springs aren’t easy to spot and they come and go with the weather. The source of the River Itchen, which we pass on one of the South Downs Beano rides, looks like a small pond in the woods that mysteriously refills itself from nowhere. Some springs die away in the dry summer months: there’s an old local word “winterbourne”, which means a stream (or bourne) that only flows in the winter. Our local rivers seem to appear, fully-formed, from nowhere. But because of all that filtering the water’s been through, what we get is a supply of clean, crystal-clear and calcium-rich water  emerging from the ground at a constant temperature all year round.

Winter greens

Back to the watercress.

Watercress is a leafy green vegetable which grows in water (surprise). It likes constantly-flowing streams and a clean river bed. So where there are chalk springs you’ll find watercress growing – both naturally and as a crop in distinctive rectangular  “beds”. The springwater stays a few degrees above freezing all year round, so in the depths of winter the plants are protected from ice and frost. 

Watercress grows wild in the local rivers and if you know what you’re doing you can pick it for yourself – but you have to be careful, as cress growing downstream from fields of livestock can become infested with liver fluke, which – trust me – is not something you want to pick up. Don’t make me show you the pictures. Farmed watercress beds use water fresh from the springs and are tested regularly.

While watercress can be grown year-round, the traditional harvesting season is winter through to late spring.  In the past that was very handy, as there wasn’t much else in the way of green vegetables around in the winter and watercress’s peppery, spicy flavour made it a favourite. 

When the railway came to the market town of Alresford in mid-Hampshire, it became possible to pick watercress in the morning and deliver it to the London fruit and veg markets the same day. Suddenly Alresford became the centre of a thriving cress industry. The railway that runs up to Alton, where it meets the main London Line, became known as the Watercress Line – as it still is. (The line boasts a climb to the highest railway station in southern England at its midpoint, which is, to be honest, not very high – though on the plus side it means the steam enthusiasts who run the railway have an excuse to play with some seriously big locomotives.)

Watercress Line train
Watercress Line train

Watercress was – and is – sold in bunches, tied with string or, nowadays, a regulation blue elastic band. Smaller local farms still have bunches for sale with an honesty box for payment at the gate.

In Victorian London, as it was tasty and nutritious and could be bought cheaply from street sellers, it was used for something called “Poor Man’s Bread” by those who couldn’t afford real bread.

Here’s the basic Poor Man’s Bread recipe:

  1. Buy a bunch of watercress.
  2. Scrunch it up tightly in your hand.
  3. Bite into it. Pretend it’s bread.
  4. Feel less hungry now? Good. Get back to work.

 

By the late 20th century watercress had fallen out of fashion and was mostly seen as garnish – the token bit of greenery that you discarded when it was served to you on top of your rump steak in a Berni Inn. In recent years it’s been reinvented as a nutritious “superfood”, high in antioxidants, minerals and vitamins and a good source of isothiocyanates (yes I did just cut and paste that word from a website), which have been linked to a reduction in cancer rates.

There’s an annual festival to celebrate the plant in Alresford, the “Capital of Watercress”. Obviously this year it was a virtual festival, so you could watch somebody walking round the watercress beds on Zoom while you sat at home munching on your Poor Man’s Bread, but we can only hope that it’ll be back next May.

Watercress beds, Itchen Stoke
Watercress beds, Itchen Stoke

That brings me to today’s watercress recipes. Watercress soup is the classic dish, but my favourite is the cheese and watercress scone, as sold in the best Hampshire tearooms. The richness of a good cheese combines beautifully with the spiciness of the watercress. 

As this is Bicycle Beano, I’ve also been experimenting with a vegan scone recipe, which some of my test victims subjects rated more highly than the non-vegan version.

Before we get into the recipe, though, I should remind you that “scone” rhymes with “gone”, not with “bone”.

Oh yes it does.

Look, there’s no point in arguing with me, it just does.

Cheese and Watercress Scone recipes

Watercress scones (non-vegan and vegan)
Watercress scones (non-vegan and vegan)

Dairy-based version

Based on a recipe from The Watercress Company. The original adds cayenne pepper, but I think the watercress adds enough pepperiness on its own.

Ingredients

  • 1 bunch of watercress (about 100g)
  • 225g self-raising flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp mustard powder (optional)
  • A pinch of salt
  • 50g butter, cubed
  • 75g mature Cheddar cheese, grated (Or try a cheese that’s local to the same region, like Lyburn Winchester – a cross between a mature cheddar and a gouda, from the New Forest) 
  • 200ml buttermilk plus a little for brushing the tops

The recipe

Preheat the oven to 220ºC/Fan 200ºC/ Gas Mark 7.

Chop the watercress finely.

Sift the flour, baking powder, salt and mustard into a large bowl.

Add the butter, then rub it into the dry ingredients until the mix resembles breadcrumbs.

Stir in the chopped watercress and two-thirds of the grated cheese.

Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients, add the buttermilk and mix together with a round-bladed knife to form a soft dough.

Very lightly knead on a floured surface. (Don’t overdo this! Do just enough to make it hold together. Too much and you’ll end up with tough scones.)

Roll the dough out to a thickness of 2.5cm. Use a plain round cutter to press out circles of the dough, re-rolling lightly as necessary.

Place the scones on an oiled large baking sheet. Brush the top of each with a little buttermilk then scatter over the remaining cheese.

Bake in the centre of the oven for 20-25 minutes or until golden on the top.

Leave to cool for 5 minutes before serving warm, split and spread with butter and maybe some more cheese.

Vegan version

Loosely based on a cheese scone recipe from The Veg Space.

Ingredients

  • 1 bunch of watercress (about 100g)
  • 225 g self-raising flour
  • 50 g dairy-free cooking fat (I quite like the new Flora Plant B+tter)
  • 125 g vegan cheese (preferably a ‘cheddar’-like one that can be grated, though a crumbly ‘cheshire’-style can be interesting too)
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2 tsp mustard powder (or mustard if that’s what you have)
  • 60 ml unsweetened dairy-free milk plus a little more for brushing the tops (I used oat milk)

The recipe

Preheat the oven to 220°C/Fan 200°C / Gas Mark 7.

Chop the watercress finely.

Sift the flour into a large bowl.

Cut the margarine into small squares or chunks and add to the bowl. Rub the margarine in to the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.

Grate the cheese into the bowl, add the salt, mustard powder and chives, then stir to combine.

Add the milk and mix until the mixture comes together into a dough. You may need to add a little cold water. 

Very lightly knead on a floured surface. (Don’t overdo this! Do just enough to make it hold together. Too much and you’ll end up with tough scones.)

Roll the dough out to a thickness of 2.5cm. Use a plain round cutter to press out circles of the dough, re-rolling lightly as necessary.

Place the scones on an oiled large baking sheet. Brush the tops with a little dairy-free milk.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 20 minutes until golden brown on top.

Leave to cool for 5 minutes then serve warm, split and spread with dairy-free spread of your choice.

 

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