Watercress: the pine-green superfood ready for promotion

Date:17-09-2013 07:58:40 read:6

Watercress: the pine-green superfood ready for promotion

Full of vim – and vitamins – watercress is way too good to languish as a garnish.

Hot and sour watercress, avocado and mango salad  Photo: YUKI SUGUIRA
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Seeing how a food grows makes a difference to how you feel about it. Standing by beds of pine-green watercress in Hampshire, I could be in a different age. This is not the stuff I see used as a garnish then pushed to the side of the plate. This watercress looks vital and abundant, the beds, with springwater flowing through them, ancient. And things appear healthily "natural" – trained hawks and falcons fly over the watercress to deter pigeons and rodents, so pesticides aren't needed.

Watercress was a staple of the English diet way back. A watercress sandwich was a regular working-class breakfast in the 19th century (in fact, watercress was known as "poor man's bread" because it was eaten on its own if you were too poor to buy bread). It was also one of the first "foods on the go", as bunches were wrapped in paper cones and eaten rather the way an ice-cream is today. But it was gradually eclipsed by other leaves and imported greens.

With its "superfood" status, watercress is back in business, but I love it for its flavour and beauty. The bite is peppery and that green is a great background for other strong colours – beetroot, radicchio and pumpkin. It's also the best salad leaf for putting with hot foods – which is why you see it garnishing steaks and roast chicken – because it wilts rather than slumps, and its pepperiness works well with meat.

I'm sceptical about "superfoods", but Steve Rothwell, one of the scientific brains behind watercress cultivation, is a passionate watercress advocate (despite working with it all day every day, he picked and ate sprigs of the stuff the whole time we chatted). He gives me the hard facts. Watercress contains more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk, more vitamin E than broccoli and more folate than bananas.

It is also at the top of the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index. Developed by an American doctor, this grades fruit and vegetables from one to 1,000 according to their nutrient content. But here's the real biggie: research undertaken at the University of Ulster found that a daily portion of watercress (about 85g, the amount you can fit in a cereal bowl) reduces DNA damage to cells and increases their resistance to further damage by free radicals. Even if you can't manage a whole bag of it a day, eating watercress is good for you.

Why am I writing about watercress in September? Because it was traditionally in season when there was an R in the month. It's the cold-weather salad leaf. Fill your boots with it.

Susy Atkins suggests the best wines to serve with watercress...

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