Hampshire Watercress, Hampshire

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For too long watercress has been the culinary bridesmaid and never the bride: a few sprigs at the side of a restaurant plate, perhaps if you are lucky a watercress soup before getting onto the serious business of the main course. But finally people are waking up to the possibilities it offers thanks largely to the plantís exceptionally healthy qualities: there is a mantra that growers and food writers alike enjoy repeating about watercress: weight for weight more vitamin C than oranges; more calcium than milk; more iron than spinach. It is, in short, something of a superfood.
In Britain the traditional home of watercress production has been Hampshire , thanks to the availability of clean and mineral rich spring water bubbling up through the chalky Downs. Alresford is the great centre, now making more of its vitaminy riches by staging an annual watercress festival . Even the preserved railway in the district, running between Alresford and Alton via Four Marks, is called The Watercress Line .
We shouldnít denigrate watercress soup of course: if well made itís a real pleasure, and the creamy version makes a good chilled summer soup. But there are more creative ways to enjoy the leaves: watercress pesto makes good use of that green and tangy flavour (itís related to the mustard family); a watercress-based sauce is traditional with many freshwater fish Ė we tend to stick to trout and salmon these days, but perch is beloved of the Swiss and worth trying Ė but why not with pasta? Watercress makes a good basis for a mixed salad too, and has enough oomph to stand up to vinaigrette as a green salad on its own.
One caveat: buy it, donít pick it wild; the farmed stuff is carefully looked after to avoid any lingering beasties that you definitely donít want. And youíll be supporting a long established - if little heard of - branch of British farming, which is no bad thing either.

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