A couple of weeks ago I headed to Hampshire to visit Drayton Watercress Farm. Located right next to the tracks of the Watercress Line railway in Alresford, Drayton Farm was set up in the 1880s in response to the huge popularity of watercress, which at the time was a staple of the working-class diet.
Now operated by The Watercress Company, watercress is still grown at Drayton today, using the same traditional methods as in Victorian times, aside from a few modern efficiency tweaks. In order to offer year-round supply, The Watercress Company has farms in Florida and Spain, as well as Dorset and Hampshire, and is one of the biggest UK producers, supplying Tesco, Waitrose, M&S and Asda. My host Tom Amery, managing director of The Watercress Company had kindly offered to show me around the two main farms they run in the area.
My prior knowledge and experience of anything to do with cress had been limited to cultivating cress heads on windowsills. As soon as I stepped out into Drayton Farm, I quickly realised that garden cress and watercress are in fact two complete different things. I was expecting to be greeted by large fields of soil but the farm looked nothing like I had imagined. With water flowing through large beds of watercress, this resembles more rice paddy fields than the usual salad beds.
A Traditional British Crop Still So Relevant Today
Watercress is an indigenous plant in the UK that thrives in slow moving water. Wild watercress grows freely in rivers, and for a very long time people foraged on it. However, in the1800s, concerns about pollution led to the controlling of its farming. Provenance became key to ensuring quality. The unique geological makeup around Hampshire and Dorset makes this the perfect area to grow watercress, as there are many groundwater springs.
Farmed watercress became so popular that a dedicated trainline was created to bring watercress from field to plate in record time. The line ran from Alresford to Alton and on to London where 2 million bunches were consumed every weekend. From London, watercress was dispatched throughout the UK where demand was also very high.
Watercress is a crop that requires a vast amount of water. Here, it is nurtured in flowing spring water that bubbles up from ancient aquifers under the South Downs in Hampshire and Dorset. As we walked through the farm that day, Tom explained that 6 million litres of water will be drifting from the top of the farm, through large beds of watercress then to join back to the river system. No water is wasted, it is simply borrowed and returned to the waterways.
Once it has germinated, watercress is squirted onto large gravel beds. A constant flow of water ensures it is properly irrigated and nourished. In spite of the recent warm days, watercress season is running a couple of weeks late this year as the cold nights are hindering crop growth.
Further down the farm, we spotted a few trout swimming upstream in the ditch connecting the farm to the river. The Watercress Company closely monitors wildlife diversity nearby as an indicator of the health of the farm. Water quality testing is paramount. Here watercress is grown without pesticides and trained birds of prey are used to keep pests off the crops. The natural spring water provides nutrition to the crop in the form of nitrogen and phosphate. This is topped up if needed with some natural fertilisers.
Once ready to harvest, watercress is cut in the morning and brought next door to a processing facility where it is washed in spring water and bagged for retail. In the height of the season, 250 000 bags (equating to 25 tons of watercress) are dispatched every week.
The goodness in watercress
Traditionally watercress would just have been grown and harvested during the winter months. It was consumed by people across Europe to give them a flavoursome nutritional boost. While watercress has enjoyed great popularity for centuries it is still really relevant today, thanks to its many properties such as detoxifying and blood and liver cleansing.
The health benefits of watercress apply to us all, whatever stage of life we are at. Whether we are working hard, maybe planning a family or working out, the high levels of micronutrients in watercress are essential to a healthy mind and body. Also, as many of us are turning to plant-based diets, watercress can help fill nutritional gaps. Registered nutritionist and former vet, Dr Lucy Williamson explains why watercress is a great choice:
- IRON demands are high during growth, through puberty and beyond as well as for sports enthusiasts. However, plant-based diets have low iron availability – it may be in the plant but it’s impossible to absorb, unless Vitamin C is also present to change the iron into the same form that’s so easy to absorb from red meat (known as haem iron). 80g of watercress contains more Vitamin C than an orange of the same weight! According to National Diet and Nutrition Survey, UK 2018, 46% of young girls are below the recommended daily intake of iron in the UK. Low iron levels mean we can’t use the energy in our food; growth and development are energy zapping processes. Furthermore, avoiding low iron stores during pregnancy is a must, being essential for brain development in unborn babies and into toddler years. (and taking iron supplements only adds to the nausea of pregnancy) Watercress is a rare green leaf in this respect – a veg with a source of available iron should be top of the shopping list!
- VITAMIN A is also required to improve iron absorption – 100g of Watercress contains more than half our recommended daily intake. Even better – Vit A is required for a strong immune system too so more productive at work and school – a real win win situation!
- CALCIUM is of course needed during growth to reach maximum bone density by age 18 – there’s no going back after this, yet nearly 25% of girls under 24, have an intake below the lowest recommended daily amount. Beyond this age group, calcium is always required to maintain bone density and provide for that of a developing baby. Dairy is a good source of calcium but may not be on the list of favourite food choices. 100g of watercress gives a quarter of the recommended daily amount (much more is needed however during pregnancy and breastfeeding).
- VITAMIN K is also a key nutrient in bone density and Watercress is a Vitamin K powerhouse! It’s not as easily absorbed from plants as it is from food of animal origin but 100g Watercress contains four times our recommended daily intake so it’s a pretty good source of another valuable vitamin.
- GUT BACTERIA get their energy from fermenting FIBRE in the food we eat (as well as probiotics like Kefir and other fermented foods). These microbes are to be nurtured – they’re essential in our long-term health, from developing our immune system to protection from bowel disease and lifting our mood. Watercress, along with other fruit and veg, is a great source of fibre to nurture our microbes but it also has one of the highest levels of ANTIOXIDANTS. Our gut bacteria have an important role activating these antioxidants before we can use them for essential daily detox to reduce DNA damage from the many toxins we’re constantly exposed to – either in the environment or those from metabolic processes within our body. No fads here. This is ground breaking research and is likely to become the future of medicine.
- FOLATE is in all fibre-rich foods like Watercress and is needed in far higher amounts before and during pregnancy to avoid neural tube birth defects (Spina Bifida).
- SPORTS PERFORMANCE demands nourishing recovery drinks and in today’s climate of ‘keeping sport clean’, natural nutrients are surely the way ahead – Watercress, like beetroot, contains high levels of nitrates which have been shown to increase the efficiency of using oxygen during exercise. Its high Vitamin C and antioxidants are valuable in reducing oxidative stress which occurs during intense sport and can lead to DNA damage and prolonged return to training. Oxidative stress can also weaken the immune system, so a great source of Vitamin C is a valuable ingredient in any sports recovery drink.
While Victorians might have been taking the health properties of watercress at face value, we know now that cruciferous vegetables, such as watercress, have the property to detox the body by turning fat soluble toxins into water soluble toxins that can then be excreted from the body. Also, watercress contains isothiocyanate, a compound that helps prevent DNA damage and therefore protects against cancer.
If you are interested in learning more about watercress health benefits and finding inspiration on how to eat it, check out the #watercresschallenge below and on social media.
Delicious Ways To Eat Watercress
Watercress is nothing short of a superfood and we should all be eating more of it. Luckily it is very versatile in the kitchen. Ideally, to preserve its abundant nutrients, it is best to eat watercress raw. It has a delicious peppery taste which is perfect in salads. Yet there is so much more to it.
You can for example simply add it to your blender and super-boost your smoothies or juices whether for breakfast or for pre or post-workout fuel. Personally, when cooking a soup I like to add a handful or two of raw watercress just as I get ready to blend the vegetables that are already cooked.
Watercress can be included in many different types of dishes ranging from salads to desserts. You can find a lot of inspiration on Watercress.co.uk. The Watercress Company has also kindly agreed to share the recipes below:
Burgers are always popular with everyone and this vegan recipe for Black Bean & Watercress Burgers ticks all the boxes: hearty, healthy and truly satisfying. You can find details of the recipe here.
These Chocolate, Orange & Watercress Brownies with Chocolate Ganache Topping are extremely moreish and a great example of how you can make desserts healthier by adding vegetables to them – without anyone ever noticing it! You can find details of the recipe here.
The Watercress Festival
As luck would have it, the Watercress Festival is happening this Sunday May 19th in New Alresford where the town is transformed to welcome visitors from all over. With dedicated areas such as a Kids’ Zone, Cookery Theatre, Food Market and Falconry there is something for everyone. Over 80 stalls showcase the very best local food and drink producers. Others sell arts, crafts, jewellery and clothing, items for the house, garden and much else besides.
Well-known chefs will demonstrate delicious watercress-inspired dishes. And more adventurous visitors can take up the challenge of the World Watercress Eating Championships – now in the Guinness Book of World Records. For more information visit www.watercressfestival.org
Following my visit to Drayton Farm, I returned home with a huge bag of fresh watercress. We made salads, a soup and some smoothies. Both my kids have now decided that they love watercress so much we should eat it every week. What more can I say? As someone who always emphasizes the needs and health benefits of a wholesome diet, I can see no better way to nourish their growing bodies and minds.