Water, water, everywhere

Annie Bell finds the best watercress
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Why is it that watercress, now with us 12 months of the year, has been all but relegated to the waxworks, while rocket is labelled on menus like some precious designer frock and seems to be having all the fun? Give me watercress any day. But as with so many foods, there is watercress and there is watercress, and not all methods of cultivation and handling do it justice.

John Hurd, an archetypal Wiltshire man with an accent that could lull a baby to sleep, is the only organic grower in the country. The first thing that strikes you at Watercress Farm in Hill Deverill, where John has been growing watercress since 1953, is the wet. You are never far from the rippling of pure spring water pumped up from 120 feet below the ground, running at a constant 11C. This may sound chilly by swimming standards, but during the winter it acts as an hot-water bottle for the plants. The beds are elegant and elongated lawns of glossy, cushioned clumps, the plants about nine inches tall when mature, anchored by a complex system of fine white rootlets to the gravel bed below.

And below the beds is a complex system of sluice gates which open and close to let water in and out, draining and flooding, with 500,000 gallons passing through each acre every day. In a corner of the farm there is a large tank painted piscine blue, with railings, like a raised Art Deco swimming pool: "Best thing I ever did, putting in that settlement tank," Hurd says.

And the first person in the country to do so. It all began with a furore by the National Rivers Authority, which complained that the water let into the rivers when cleaning out the watercress beds was polluting them and upsetting their natural balance. So John agreed to build a tank where the water could settle for 12 hours before being released. Having witnessed the before and after of this process, I can verify that it "goes in virtually black and settles out lovely".

This pioneering move, completed in 1991, not only kept the National Rivers Authority sweet, but - unbeknown to John when he built it - facilitated a move into organic farming. The tank has enabled him to wash his beds down with lime, a natural fertiliser which also cleanses the bed, and then settles out in the tank.

Together with a handful of other processes, such as flooding beds, this has allowed him to regulate the insect-life that is the bane of any watercress grower, the mustard beetles, aphids and blue fly that are as fond of munching it as we are.

Organic or otherwise, not so long ago watercress was a seasonal crop, coming on to the market in September and petering out in May when it flowered, hence thriving at a time of the year when lettuces and other salad leaves were scarce. For John Hurd, the way around this has been to cultivate a late-flowering variety, which, within a carefully controlled procedure, can be coaxed into producing all year round.

For other growers, the solution has been to keep replanting with seedlings. But, because these flower quickly and are therefore harvested young, they do not have the flavour that the mature plants offer.

Watercress comes in two varieties - prepacked and bunched. Do not be fooled. The prepack may make your lot easier, with no messy roots to cut off and no need to wash it, but you are buying convenience at the expense of flavour. A bunch of watercress guarantees that the plants have grown to a certain height, and therefore have the natural peppery taste of maturity.

If watercress loves water, it also loves ice, and in the packing shed at Watercress Farm there is a small concrete cell packed from floor to ceiling with white crystalline ice. Packing it on to the stalks, allowing ice-cold water to percolate through the pack, is essential to prevent the watercress from drying out.

Now for a sweeping statement. Any vegetable grown organically has to be preferable to one that is grown inorganically. But does it actually taste better? There is no question about the quality of the produce coming out of Watercress Farm, it has beautiful, blemish-free, plump, green, peppery leaves. A fact that has not gone unnoticed by Mr Hurd's customers.

Once upon a time, watercress sandwiches were a traditional Sunday night tea, especially in Northern mining communities. I could eat one every day: a fresh white roll spread with unsalted butter and crammed with watercress, with the occasional slice of smoked salmon or runny brie. Watercress soup at its best is the colour of a lawn. A trick taught me by Michel Roux Jr is to sweat masses of watercress in butter, add some finely sliced potato, then add boiling water or stock (the trick) and simmer for six minutes, liquidise and season.

Available from greengrocers and healthfood stockists countrywide. Enquiries to John Hurd's Organic Watercress, Stonewold, Hill Deverill, nr Warminster, Wiltshire. Tel 01985 840260