Jo from Ludwell Stores has been lamenting the fact that they are unable to stock local watercress, grown in the chalk fed spring waters a matter of yards from their door. It seems that Ludwell watercress is only sold to large supermarkets in pumped up air-tight bags and shipped nationwide. Many of us may have purchased Ludwell watercress without realising we were bringing it back to its home.
Traditionally grown watercress is lush dark green and noted for its distinctive peppery, mustard-like flavour much like its relative the garden flower, nasturtium. Recognised as a food with high nutritional value, it is packed full of nutrients and vitamins some of which include vitamin C, folic acid, iron, vitamin A and calcuim. It is probably best known as a classic ingredient for soup but also goes well with beef, used as a garnish for game and makes a great addition to a mixed green salad. I have read too that the Romans and Anglo-Saxons believed it to be a cure for baldness and Elizabethans thought it had aphrodisiac properties, particularly for women of a certain age!
I have been somewhat fascinated by the farming of watercress since living so close to its production. Many walkers who pass the Ludwell watercress beds, like me, may watch the men working the beds, sowing the small clumps of seedlings into the gravel, throwing them down with precision and care and then adjusting the water level through the sluices, so it is fed gently through the seedlings until fully grown, in just over four weeks. A little word of caution, however, please don't go foraging for wild watercress in the Donhead streams until you've read up on liver flukes.
Watercress will, contrary to popular belief, grow anywhere that is moist, although a clean source of running water is argued to produce better crops. There are a number of websites dedicated to growing watercress from seed in the garden although I have never given it a try. Most watercress beds are situated next to a natural spring, as in Ludwell. Now (April and May) is believed to be the best time to harvest watercress, although it can be gathered at any time when the ground is not frozen. Watercress is highly perishable as many of us will be aware. Keeping the leaves of watercress in water more than a couple of days turns it to a nasty slimy mess.
Many years ago when working in a restaurant in Hampshire, close to the watercress beds at Alresford (considered the World centre of watercress growing), we served watercress with a sprinkle of salt only, sandwiched between crusty white bread. Thinking about this now, I might add some lemon mayonnaise (see this month’s recipe) or slices of ripe pear. Yum. So give a bunch a try. You might just find that you feel healthier, more vital, and less bald into the bargain.
Watercress and Onion Bhaji with lemon, chilli and watercress mayonnaise
(With a nod to Sophie Grigson and Bobby Flay)
Makes approx 12 bhajis.
Approx.£5.80 when all ingredients bought at Ludwell Stores. You could make your own mayonnaise, however, this recipe uses ready-made ‘Great Taste’ awarded Delouis mayonnaise from Ludwell Stores.
For the Bhajis
30g green lentils
1 large onion, very thinly sliced
40g watercress, roughly chopped
½ tsp salt
75g gram flour
¼ tsp baking powder
½ tsp ground turmeric
½ tsp ground coriander
1 tsp cumin
1 small potato, peeled and grated
1½ tbs chopped coriander
20g flaked almonds
Sunflower or rapeseed oil for frying
For the Mayonnaise mix
1 tsp grated lemon zest
juice of 2 lemons
½ green chili (or to taste)
250g good quality mayo (I used Delouis mayonnaise)
1 small red onion, diced
1 stick celery finely chopped
2 tbs chopped, flat leaf parsley
seeds bunch/bag fresh watercress
salt and ground black pepper
For the bhajis
1. Soak the lentils for up-to 4 hours (you do not need to cook them)
2. Spread the onion out in a colander and sprinkle with salt, leaving for 30 minutes then squeeze out excess moisture
3. Drain lentils and dry on kitchen paper then mix in a large bowl with the sifted flour, baking powder, ground and whole spices. Mix well, adding the chopped watercress, grated potato, coriander and flaked almonds. Meanwhile make the mayonnaise mix
4. Place lemon juice in a small saucepan and bring to boil. Reduce to half the volume and allow to cool.
5. Place lemon syrup, chilli, lemon zest, watercress (leaves only) and mayonnaise in a blender and blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and transfer to bowl. Add the onions, celery, and parsley and set aside, or refrigerate.
6. Heat a frying pan with 1cm depth of oil, to approx 175°C (or test with a cube of bread – it’s hot enough if the bread fizzes gently)
7. Scoop a dessertspoonful of the bhaji mixture, roll into balls, flatten slightly and lay in the hot oil.
8. Cook gently, turning occasionally until richly browned on both sides
9. Drain briefly on kitchen paper and serve, ideally immediately, with a dollop of lemon, chili and watercress mayonnaise.
A delicious starter or snack or even a picnic item for a burst of spice.
A truly, truly scrumptious more-ish treat
These musings and recipes are gleaned from The Donhead Digest with the permission of AIF, their author.