While today watercress is often relegated to a garnish, and at best allowed to perform a solo as a soup, the peppery leafy green was lauded by the ancient Romans, who called it ‘nasturtium’, meaning twisted nose, and used it as an aphrodisiac, breath freshener, and to treat insanity by mixing it with vinegar. Even further back, Greek physician Hippocrates believed watercress had the power to purify the blood, and used it to treat his patients, while Persian soldiers used watercress to ward off scurvy by turning it into a tea. Napoleon was also a big fan.
An aquatic plant of the mustard family, in Victorian London watercress sarnies were a staple breakfast of the working classes. The emerald bunches were eaten on their own by those too poor to afford bread. Brought to London from farms in the south of England, one enterprising woman turned the capital’s appetite for watercress into a profitable business. Having moved to London after escaping the clutches of her violent first husband, who thrice stabbed her, in 1908 watercress hawker Eliza James began selling the salad leaves in Covent Garden market.
At the height of her fame, James was selling a staggering 50 tonnes of watercress a week, both at Covent Garden market and to local restaurants, hotels and shops. Such was her notoriety, she had a near monopoly of the watercress market in the capital, cultivating the fiery vegetable at farms in Hampshire and Surrey. Despite her wealth, Eliza insisted on travelling to work each morning on her watercress cart. When she died in 1927, a wreath of watercress was laid on her coffin.
Originating in Asia and first cultivated in Britain in 1802 by horticulturalist William Bradbury, today watercress is considered a superfood, and is praised for being rich in antioxidants and vitamins A, C and E. While watercress packs a peppery punch, the leaves are surprisingly delicate in nature and can easily be overcooked. As February drew to a close, I rounded off my month of soups with Julia Child’s cream of watercress, which she describes as “perfect for an important dinner”.
The soup is wonderfully simple to make. All you need is an abundance of watercress, shallots, butter, flour, chicken stock, eggs and cream. All of Julia’s soups seem to begin with a base of chopped shallots, which add an appealing sweetness and depth of flavour. Once the shallots have softened, go all in with half a pound of watercress, cooking it in a large pan on a low heat for five minutes. Be careful not to overcook the leaves, or they risk losing their lovely peppery heat.
Once wilted, add an ounce of flour to the watercress and stir for three minutes, then pour in two pints of chicken stock, which gives the soup its backbone of savoury flavour. After just five minutes of simmering (I went for 10 for added flavour) Julia’s recipe requires a moulinette – an ancient contraption with a metal blade used for grinding food into a pulp. Lacking one but not wanting to cheat with a blender, I mashed as much of the watercress pulp as I could through a sieve.
In the same way most of Julia’s soups begin with onions, they all seem to end with the holy trinity of egg yolks, cream and butter, which are first beaten together before the soup is slowly introduced to them in a thin stream. It is this base of chopped shallots and chicken stock, and decadent finishing school of butter and cream that lend all of Child’s soups their luxurious creamy character coupled with a wonderfully deep savoury flavour, giving them an inherent moreishness.
A cook should never praise their own food too highly, but these soups have caught me by surprise at how delicious they are. What the watercress soup lacked in vivid green colour it more than made up for in flavour. With each slurp of the spoon came a murmur of delight at the pure pleasure of it all. And such a simple pleasure too. I’d like to see the humble ingredient celebrated again with equal fervour as the ancient Romans. Having finished with soups, in March I’ll be exploring eggs in all their glorious guises, and perhaps finally conquering my fear of hollandaise.