WHAT DO ZEUS, NAPOLEON and the lead singer of the Sex Pistols have in common?
Not much actually, but all are (or were) big fans of watercress.
John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten) screamed “I’m an anarchist” when he fronted the ’70's punk rock band, though more recently on the TV show I’m a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here, the only thing he raved about was his “killer watercress soup.”
The many virtues of watercress have been prized for millennia. While Zeus ate it to fortify himself against his bloodthirsty father, Cronos, Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, located his first hospital beside a stream so he could grow watercress to treat his patients. Roman emperors ate watercress to help them make bold decisions and Roman citizens ate it to prevent baldness (though the citizens must have eaten more than the emperors because Julius Caesar was bald as a cue ball and used his laurel wreaths to hide this fact.) Anglo-Saxons also ate watercress to prevent baldness and to clean the blood. Greeks ate watercress to increase their intelligence (they even had a proverb about the plant’s intellect-boosting powers: “Eat watercress and get wit,” which probably sounds better in Greek).
In England, Elizabethan herbalist John Gerard recommended watercress as a remedy for scurvy and Francis Bacon wrote that the “eating of watercress doth restore the wanted bloom to the cheeks of old-young ladies.” (Bacon was on to something; a 2012 study showed 10 out of 11 “old-young ladies” had measurable improvements to their skin after eating two cups of watercress a day for four weeks.)
Watercress had its heyday in Victorian England, when a special railway line, dubbed The Watercress Line, ferried flats of watercress from Hampshire to London’s Covent Garden, where it was sold in bunches by young girls—people bought the bunches and ate them like we eat ice cream cones. The Victorians believed watercress could cure toothaches, hiccups and even freckles. More recently, watercress had been relegated to the status of a lowly garnish prompting British watercress farmers to launch a promotional campaign, “Not Just a Bit on the Side.” Hampshire’s watercress is still celebrated each year at the Alresford Watercress Festival and World Watercress Eating Championship, which draws upwards of 15,000 visitors. (In 2013, Glenn Walsh set a world record by eating two cups in 35 seconds, smashing the former record by 14 seconds.)
Thanks to a recent study published by the Center for Disease Control, watercress has become one of the “it” foods of 2015. Researchers at William Paterson University produced a list of 41 “powerhouse fruits and vegetables” (PFV) ranked by the amounts of 17 nutrients they contain, including fiber, protein, calcium, iron, and vitamins A, B, C, D, E and K. The top spot on the list goes to—you guessed it—watercress, with a score of 100. (Kale comes in at a middling 49.07; grapefruit clinches the bottom spot with 10.47) PFVs are defined as “foods providing, on average, 10 percent or more daily value per 100 kilocalories of 17 nutrients.” Since watercress has only 4 calories per cup, you would have to eat 25 cups of it to get all of those nutrients. (In contrast, you would only have to eat 3 cups of kale.)
This is not to diminish watercress’s health benefits, however. It’s filled with more than 15 essential vitamins and minerals and, ounce for ounce, has more Vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach, three times as much Vitamin E as lettuce, and four times more beta-carotene than apples, tomatoes or broccoli. It also provides significant doses of the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which are essential for eye and cardiovascular health. Uncooked watercress also contains compounds that are converted into a cancer-fighting chemical when exposed to a particular enzyme. (Cooking inactivates the enzyme.)
The semi-aquatic perennial herb’s botanic name is Nasturtium officinale. (Nasturtium is Latin for twisted nose, a reference to the effect the peppery plant has on one’s nasal passages). It is a member of the cabbage family and closely related to mustard, radish and wasabi. Introduced into the United States around 1831, today it’s cultivated year-round throughout the country, though watercress is at its best and sweetest in the spring—warm weather makes the leaves more bitter and the stems tougher. Once cut, it will grow over the summer and can be harvested again in the fall.
Wild watercress is more pungent than cultivated watercress, and many of the local farms that sell watercress harvest the wild plants that grow on the farm or nearby. Ron Hayward cultivates micro-green watercress at Late Bloomer Farm, in Campbell Hall (Orange County), year-round and will be offering summer CSA shares for the first time this year. (Competition for good watercress can be quite intense among chefs and food suppliers because the wild herb has such a limited peak season.)
Foraging for watercress is popular and common, but foragers must be cautious about when—and where—the plants are collected, says professional forager Langdon Cook, who notes that watercress “has a tendency to proliferate in questionable habitats, including roadside ditches, city parks, and irrigation canals,” where it can easily absorb any number of contaminants, including pesticides and heavy metals. Prefer to buy your watercress? Mother Earth’s Storehouse sells Live Gourmet watercress, hydroponically grown and complete with roots. Local chain stores sell bagged watercress from B&W Quality Growers in Florida, the world’s largest watercress grower.
Many of the world’s cuisines embrace watercress. The French use it in their colorful potage au cresson, the Italians use it in minestrone and the Chinese frequently add it to stir-fries. (The Chinese consider watercress a “yin,” or cooling ingredient; alcohol is a “yang” ingredient. Thus, watercress is widely considered a hangover cure.) Watercress can be used in salads and soups and on sandwiches. It can be sautéed with garlic like spinach, added to a stir-fry, or wilted into pasta, rice and risotto to add a crunchy, peppery zest.