Over the centuries, watercress has been credited with restoring health, curing toothache and hiccups and preventing baldness.
And while some of the thoughts and theories about this peppery tasting crop are more reliable than others, there’s no doubting its health-boosting qualities.
Hippocrates is thought to have built the first hospital near a stream so the freshest watercress could be used to treat his patients.
And the father of medicine was onto something. Scientific studies have revealed the health benefits of watercress and suggested it has anti-cancer properties.
‘It’s the original superfood, in fact it was seen as a medicine right through to the late 1800s, It’s only in the last 100 to 150 years that we’ve seen it as more of a food,’ says Steve Rothwell, group production and technical director for producer Vitacress.
Vitacress, which has its biggest watercress farm at St Mary Bourne, Hampshire, funded some of the anti-cancer studies.
Research by the University of Southampton has revealed that the PEITC compound in watercress may have the ability to suppress breast cancer cell development by ‘turning off’ a signal in the body, thereby starving the tumour of blood and oxygen.
And more good news is that watercress is local. Vitacress is part of the Watercress Alliance – the three largest producers in the UK, which are based in Hampshire and Dorset.
Steve explains why the counties are perfect for production. ‘We have huge underground pure chalk water reserves, ideal for flowing through the crop.’
It even has its own annual event. The Watercress Festival at Alresford takes place on Sunday, May 15.
Unfortunately its power to prevent baldness – a Roman and Anglo Saxon idea – has yet to be proven.
Wonderful taste of watercress in Thai inspired dish
Thai style beef and watercress salad
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 6-8 minutes
2 (175g/6oz) sirloin steaks, trimmed of fat
15ml/1tbsp Szechuan peppercorns, crushed
3 tomatoes, deseeded and sliced
1 small red onion, sliced
225g/8oz cucumber, peeled, deseeded and sliced
1 (85g) bag watercress
30ml/2tbsp Thai sweet chilli dipping sauce
juice 1 lime
15ml/1tbsp Thai fish sauce
1. Coat the steaks with the peppercorns and season with a little salt. Cook under a hot grill for six to eight minutes, turning once until medium rare. Set aside for two minutes to cool slightly.
2. Toss the tomatoes, onion and cucumber with the watercress. Whisk the chilli sauce, lime juice and fish sauce together.
3. Thinly slice the steak and toss together with salad and dressing.
This and other recipes available from watercress.co.uk