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What would an English afternoon tea be without watercress sandwiches?

Here is what watercress looks like

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Watercress bunch fresh from the market

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Freshly washed watercress stems and leaves

Watercress leaves ready for the sandwiches

Watercress is a fantastic food that grows abundantly near in running water. This  slightly  peppery, delicate, dark green leafy vegetable that has been growing wild in streams of running water since the times of the ancient Greeks; but more about them later!

Watercress is sold in supermarkets and farmers’ markets in bundles with a rubber band half way up the stems. Because the watercress grows in rivers and streams, the leaves must be washed thoroughly.  At Splendid Afternoon Teas, we cut off the stems a third from the bottom of the bunch and discard this bottom third. We then place the watercress into a colander, rinse thoroughly with cool water, tossing the watercress about with our hands.  Another thorough rinse, and then we remove leaves from the larger stems and pat dry by gently folding a cloth tea towel over the watercress leaves. Use the larger stems in salds or soups.

Splendid Afternoon Tea Watercress Sandwiches

Spread one side of each piece of thinly-sliced white bread with the butter.

Lightly grind salt and pepper on one slice.

Cover one slice of bread generously with watercress leaves; cover with second slice of bread.

Gently pat the sandwich to flatten; remove crusts from all sides; cut in four rounds, squares or triangles. Garnish presentation plate with a sprig of watercress.

A Splendid Afternoon Teas with watercress rounds in the foreground and an English cucumber sandwich in the background.

A Splendid Afternoon Tea
with watercress rounds in the foreground and an English cucumber sandwich in the background.

And now, a little bit about watercress itself: Watercress is a green leaf vegetable (very healthy – need we say more?) with a mild peppery kick; it has been growing wild in cool streams of running water since Hippocrates prescribed it to his patients. The Romans fed watercress to their emperors and took it to cure baldness. The Egyptian Pharaohs fed it to their slaves (history doesn’t tell us why); the Royal Navy gave it to sailors as part of the diet to combat scurvy.

The plant’s heyday was during the Victorian period when the development of the railway allowed tons of the plant to be transported to Covent Garden Market. Street sellers would buy it and form it into bunches, which were eaten in the hand, like an ice cream cone – the first “on the go food”.

It was often eaten in sandwiches at breakfast time. The watercress industry continued to thrive during both World Wars when the country had to rely on home grown produce and watercress sandwiches at afternoon tea became a national institution. Watercress was a staple ingredient in school dinners; indeed several experiments conducted by the Ministry of Health in the 1930s concluded that watercress was excellent for promoting children’s growth.

English: Watercress beds, Alresford

English: Watercress beds, Alresford (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first commercial cultivation of watercress was undertaken in the United Kingdom, in 1808 along the River Ebbsfleet in Kent; Kent coincidentally was known as the Garden of England until the mid-90’s when sadly it became quite urbanized.

Watercress is now grown in a number of counties of the United Kingdom, notably in Hertfordshire, Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset. The town of Alresford, near Winchester, holds a Watercress Festival every May to celebrate one of Britain’s culinary delights and the town’s most famous crop.

In the United States in the 1940s, Huntsville, Alabama, was known as the “watercress capital of the world” (!) Today, Oviedo, Florida is the US biggest watercress provider, but Britain remains home to much of today’s watercress production.

Watercress is sold in supermarkets and farmers’ markets as well as small grocery stores; once-purchased, the storage life watercress is limited to two days in chilled/refrigerated storage.

Watercress stories: We’re looking to share stories about watercress – early encounters with the leaf; how you prepare or cook it; if you have been to the Alresford Watercress Festival, send us comments and pictures. We’d love to learn more about watercress.

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