My love affair with watercress developed after discovering an intriguing bit of local London history. When I first moved to London I lived in the east end of the city. Sadly it was when it looked more post-Armageddon than the arty and fashionable destination that it has become. Then, then as now, there was a huge disparity between the haves and have-nots together with gang violence; and after being burgled twice and mugged once, I decided to move.
Yet one of the things that fascinated me about the area was the evidence of what it had once been - a rural place where wealthy eighteenth century merchants built their mansions. It was more of a village than a bustling metropolis, and by the early 19th century Hackney was surrounded by market gardens supplying Londoners' fresh fruit and vegetables.
The clue is in some of the street names. and I was surprised to learn that yards from where I used to live was one of the foremost watercress beds in Victorian London. Since watercress needs to grow in clear and unpolluted running water; I was a little surprised but intrigued. This led me to looking up old recipes for watercress and exploring all of its marvellous possibilities, of which a watercress and potato soup is one of the simplest.
But before the recipe . . . a little bit of history that I love so much . . .
From The Illustrated London News, 15th November 1851
. . . we were somewhat puzzled at the appearance of several long ditches, or rather trenches, filled with running water, nearly covered with what we took to be weeds; but, upon inquiry, we found this was one of the artificial streams for the continual growth of watercresses for the London market. Annexed is a representation of this singular species of cultivation, which affords a living to a great number of poor men, women, and children.
From Old and New London by Edward Walford;, 1878
. . . but such has been the growth of the place during the past half century that large numbers of other streets and terraces have sprung up in all directions, on land which hitherto had served as the gardens attached to the mansions of the nobility and City merchants, or as nursery grounds, market gardens, and even watercress-beds.
watercress and potato soup
Skill level: Easy
2 tbsp olive oil
a knob of butter
2 x shallots, finely chopped
1 x medium potato, diced
1 litre light stock (use a good quality vegetable or chicken stock)
2 x bunches of watercress, chopped (separate the stalks from the leaves) - keep back a few sprigs to serve
150ml milk or single cream
salt and freshly ground black pepper
freshly grated nutmeg
a squeeze of fresh lemon juice (optional)
single cream, to serve
- Heat the oil and butter in a large saucepan. Add the onion, stir to coat and cook over a low heat until the onion has softened, but not coloured. Stir occasionally to ensure that the onions don't catch or colour. This may take up to 20 minutes.
- After 10 minutes, add the diced potato and stir to ensure that it is well mixed in. Continue to cook gently for 10 minutes.
- Add the stock and then bring to the boil. Cover and reduce to a simmer. Simmer for about 5 minutes before adding the watercress stalks.
- Add the watercress leaves. Continue to simmer for another 5 minutes. Don't overcook as the soup will lose its lovely green colour.
- Set aside to cool before liquidising. You may have read my thoughts on this before but essentially do not try to blend when hot, as this can be dangerous, particularly if using a jug blender. A combination of hot soup, a build-up of steam and vibration, can cause the hot liquid to explode out of the blender. Safer to let it cool a little!)
- Add enough milk or cream to get a good consistency. You could add a squeeze of lemon juice at this point too. Season to taste and gently reheat.
- Serve with a drizzle of cream, a few fresh watercress leaves and a grating of nutmeg.