A dark green plant with pungent acidic flavour, watercress has been valued since ancient times for its health benefits, bright colour and refreshing taste. The name refers to the fact that it grows in clear running water. Watercress is rich in vitamins and minerals, especially iron.
These days watercress is a proven antibiotic, too, so it is interesting that Hippocrates is reputed to have sited the first hospital by a stream in order to have it in ready supply. Modern cultivation is based in beds around freshwater springs. The main British season is from May to October.
Thick steams indicate that the watercress is older and will have a very strong flavour. Wild watercress can still be found growing in clumps among the rocks in clear-running streams and brooks.
During the industrial revolution, freshly cut watercress and bread was a typical breakfast for workers, and watercress sandwiches - perhaps with the addition of eggs, prawns or salmon - are still a nourishing treat. Watercress soup, made with potatoes, is one of the best-known uses. It can also be made into baked savoury mousses and quiches. In salads its peppery flavour works well with baby potatoes, chicken, tomatoes, orange, pears, blue cheese, goat's cheese, and bacon. Watercress makes an easy garnish for grilled steak or lamb, its mustardy taste helping to cut through the fattiness of the meat. You can also treat it like a herb, adding it finely chopped to butter sauces or mayonnaise, or stirring a handful into noodle dishes.