“Poor Man’s Bread”
Victorian Watercress Tea Sandwiches
High Tea, Children’s School Lunchbox and Picnics
This wonderful and vibrant leafy green plant used to be far more popular than it is nowadays, as well as considerably cheaper too. In fact it was the often known as “Poor Man’s Bread” during the Victorian times, as many impoverished labourers would have access to watercress but not the bread; so it was eaten just as we eat an ice cream cone nowadays, in the hands, holding the bunch rather like a cornetto. It was also during Victorian times that children used to take watercress sandwiches to school in place of meat ones; cheap and cheerful they may have been, but those humble sandwiches would be packed with vitamins and minerals, and therefore they made an ideal children’s packed lunch. Cooks also embraced it with zeal, and many a top table would have had dishes adorned and dressed with watercress as a simple garnish as well as a sauce. Watercress was curiously enough a “classless” ingredient though – not only did the upper classes have their elegant chilled watercress soups and veloute sauces, but the working classes would eat it as a side vegetable, or in a salad, as well as with and in bread as I mentioned before.
With the advent and growth of the railways, watercress became a valuable and popular crop for people (in the country) to grow – the railways making it easier for it to be transported from city to city, thus it became available to everyone in Britain. There is still a steam railway called The Watercress Line in Hampshire, whose history is linked to transporting watercress from the growers to the main cities. In London, watercress sellers could be found selling their wares on most street corners, the watercress packed in wicker “flats” (baskets) from which the street sellers would sell them in bunches. Its popularity was still buoyant throughout the two world wars, and I remember my grandparents would often put it on the Sunday tea time-table as “the salad”, as well as make sandwiches and soups from it too. We lived near Winchester in Hampshire for a few years when I was little, and I remember my mum going to the local watercress beds near Kingsworthy to buy bunches of fresh watercress straight from the growers…….we often had it for tea, and maybe that’s why I have always loved it. It seems such a shame that as more and more “exotic” leaves have taken over our tea tables, that watercress has been reduced to a sad and soggy garnish found on the edge of a plate, beloved of steak and burger bars, what a sad demise for such a wonderful ingredient.
It also struck me that in this age of processed foods with salt and fat laden fillings, maybe we should got back to the simpler and healthier sandwich filling from a bygone age…..or, instead of a parsley sauce with our weekly fish, why not make a lovely watercress sauce in its place……how about swapping the iceberg lettuce for a bunch of watercress – that has to be a better substitute. I remember as a child loving the slightly peppery taste to watercress, and it is a perfect partner to bread spread with a little butter. The health qualities are undisputed, watercress packs a real punch when it comes to its healthy properties – gram for gram, watercress contains more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach and more folate than bananas……and if that’s not enough, it is brimming with more than 15 essential vitamins and minerals, plus its health giving properties have been known since ancient times. In Around 400 BC on the Island of Kos, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is said to have located his first hospital beside a stream so that he could grow a plentiful supply of watercress to help treat his patients. Thankfully, it seems that watercress is making a slow come-back. There is even a Watercress Festival, which is being held on May the 2oth this year, and if you fancy your chances at becoming the World Watercress Soup Champion of 2012, click here for the entry form: World Watercress Soup Champion of 2012.
World Watercress Soup Championships to be Staged at the Watercress Festival – Sunday 20th May 2012
Last year 15,000 people descended on the small market town of Alresford in Hampshire, capital of watercress, to celebrate the start of the season for this very British crop. Organisers this year are encouraging festival goers, together with restaurateurs and food producers, to come armed with their very own version of watercress soup to tantalise the tastebuds and be judged!
Entrants should bring a flask of their soup to Alresford’s Cook Academy where celebrity chef Sophie Grigson, a representative from the Watercress Alliance, and some soon to be announced “foodies”, will be among the judges, to select the best variant on the traditional classic, but also the best “speciality watercress soup”. This could be a watercress based soup but which features other unusual or interesting ingredients. The winners of both the classic watercress soup and the speciality soup will be announced on the day and presented with a stunning “golden” ladle plus a £500 cash prize.
Charles Barter, of the Watercress Alliance, principal sponsors of the Festival, said: “Watercress Soup is one of Britain’s best known dishes – served hot or cold – it is healthy and easy to cook. It first became popular in the 17th century when it was claimed to cleanse the blood and then 200 years later was still a mainstay of Victorian cuisine. They believed the plant was a cure for toothache, hiccups and even freckles! Today watercress soup remains the most searched for recipe on our watercress website. Everyone has their personal quirk that makes it their own and we want to capture as many of these as possible. We challenge the Great British public to bring us the best watercress soup they have to offer.”
Here’s some more information about the festival and what is happening:
The Festival starts in traditional fashion with a cart load of the first new season British watercress being showered down on spectators by the newly crowned, Watercress King and Queen, as they process up the length of Broad Street.
Of course the ever popular World Watercress Eating Championships are another highlight of the Festival. Men and women of steel will compete to consume two bags of watercress in the shortest time in an effort to beat the current Guinness world record holder, Sam Batho and his time of just 49.69 seconds. If you fancy your chances in this testing gastronomic feat, simply submit your name on the day!
The Festival provides not just a spectacle but also a great day out for all the family with cookery demonstrations, food stalls run by local producers showing their wares, musical entertainment, food awards for the most interesting products featuring watercress and the chance to tour a real watercress farm and see how this amazing crop has been farmed for centuries. There is plenty to keep the kids amused too, including a petting zoo, a climbing wall run by the local Scout group and policeman stilt walkers. Children will also be able to learn about eco-farming on the Watercress Alliance stand on Broad Street and have their photograph taken with one of the falcons, which are flown on the farms to deter pigeons from eating the crop.
There will also be a collection in aid of the Festival’s chosen charity, The Joe Glover Trust. This is a Hampshire based children’s cancer charity working with families and specialist children’s cancer units across Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, East and West Sussex, the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands.
Admission to the Watercress Festival is free, although there is a charge for parking (£3 in Alresford and £5 at the park and ride in Ropley). The event, which runs from 10am until 4pm is sponsored by Alresford Chamber of Commerce, New Alresford Town Council, The Watercress Alliance (made up of Alresford Salads, Vitacress Salads Ltd and The Watercress Company), Hampshire Farmers Market and a host of community groups.
Grown in flowing spring water, these days watercress is truly recognised as a super food for a super you! Packed with 15 health giving vitamins and nutrients watercress not only supports the immune system but it improves the condition of skin and hair to help you look good, and research even suggests that it could play an important role in the field of cancer prevention. With so much to celebrate is it any wonder that the annual Watercress Festival, now in its 9th year, just keeps getting bigger and bigger.
But back to my sandwiches, not so much a recipe as a method, but do try to slip a couple of these into your children’s packed lunches, it is surprising how many children love watercress and its peppery flavour. That’s all for today, I will be back tomorrow with a classic French dish that makes great use of some lovely Scottish salt cod I recently received. Karen.
I am entering this into Ren’s Simple and in Season Event for April: