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Spice up your salads with this surprisingly health plant

Description: The Latin name for watercress, Nasturtium officinale, means ‘nose twister’.

The Latin name for watercress, Nasturtium officinale, means ‘nose twister’.

The Latin name for watercress, Nasturtium officinale, means ‘nose twister’. It’s a lovely description, I think, of the aquatic plant’s peppery bite. And it’s no surprise to learn that it belongs to the mustard family. Eat it freshly picked and it spices up even the most mundane sandwich or salad. But if spice and bite are not what you’re after, it makes a great emerald-colored soup or pesto as well.

Watercress is awesomely healthy, too. Rich in vitamins and minerals, it also contains cancer-fighting anti-oxidants, which have elevated it to superfood status. The ancients knew this well. The Greek general Xenophon, for example, made his soldiers eat it as a tonic, and Hippocrates, the ‘father’ of Western medicine, used it to treat a variety of ailments. He even built the world’s first hospital next to a stream flowing with pure spring water so that he could grow fresh watercress for his patients. Both the Greeks and the Romans believed that eating watercress would cure madness.

Description: Both the Greeks and the Romans believed that eating watercress would cure madness.

Both the Greeks and the Romans believed that eating watercress would cure madness.

Watercress grows wild in streams in Europe and Asia, and was probably first cultivated in Germany in the mid-16th century. It has only been cultivated in England since the start of the 19th century. In Victorian times, it became a staple of the working classes, often munched in sandwiches of breakfast.

Description: Watercress grows wild in streams in Europe and Asia, and was probably first cultivated in Germany in the mid-16th century.

Watercress grows wild in streams in Europe and Asia, and was probably first cultivated in Germany in the mid-16th century.

Today, the leafy heart of watercress growing is the Georgian town of Alresford in Hampshire – thanks to its mineral-rich springs that rise from the chalky aquifer below. In the old days, hand-picked bunches of watercress were sent up to London’s Covent Garden market on Alresford’s Watercress Line – a steam railway that reopened as a tourist attraction in the 1970s.

Description: Today, the leafy heart of watercress growing is the Georgian town of Alresford in Hampshire – thanks to its mineral-rich springs that rise from the chalky aquifer below.

Today, the leafy heart of watercress growing is the Georgian town of Alresford in Hampshire – thanks to its mineral-rich springs that rise from the chalky aquifer below.

Every ear, the town hosts a watercress festival, during which you can celebrate the emerald leaf by tasting it, watching chefs cooking with it, buying it to take home, and visiting some of the farms that grow it (free, but book in advance). You can also see the Watercress King and Queen distributing the first of the season’s watercress harvest to festival goers from a horse-drawn cart, and take part in the World Watercress Eating Championships.

This year’s festival, on 20 May, also features a World Watercress Soup Championships and visitors are invited to bring along their own entries. The queen of vegetable, Sphie Grisgson, will be judging. For more information about the festival, visit: www.watercressfedtival.org.

Watercress soup with goat’s cheese croutes

Description: Watercress soup with goat’s cheese croûtes

Ingredients

·         1 onion, roughly chopped

·         1 clove garlic, crushed

·         25g butter

·         1 potato, peeled and cubed

·         1l vegetable or chicken stock, (either fresh, a cube or from concentrate)

·         250g watercress, any really woody stalks removed

·         Small baguette

·         100g goat’s cheese

·         4 tbsp double cream

Method

Cook the onion and garlic in the butter until softened. Add the potato and stock and simmer for 15 minutes. Drop in the watercress and wilt for a minute or two (you want the soup to be bright green) then transfer it to a blender and whizz until smooth.

Make the croûtes. Toast the slices of baguette, top them with the slices of goat’s cheese, then toast again.

Pour the soup back in the pan and stir in the cream. Season well, then pour into bowls and top with a couple of goat’s cheese croûtes.

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