12 October 2012

Watercress at New House

"Look at me I'm a train on a track
I'm a train, I'm a chook-a train yeah...."
Albert Hammond  1974


Staying in France with our "copains" this summer always reminds us of the time when the very same friends had a huge house in Hampshire. Well, when I say "had" I really mean to say the house belonged to parents of one of them but since they spent most of the year in South Africa mater and pater were only too pleased to have some one look after the place on a semi-regular basis. In return for a few menial tasks such as mowing the lawns and dead heading the climbing roses in the walled garden we were fortunate to have access to it more or less whenever we wanted. Locked into the London rat race at the time however, meant trips were generally confined to weekends only but still escape from the city to a rather imposing Hampshire hideaway was extremely welcome and very much appreciated.

The house, ironically named "New House" was actually one of the oldest in the village and on the hillside just behind it Hampshire's famous heritage railway named the "Watercress Line" chugged along at regular intervals belching steam and blowing it's whistle. Opened in 1865 the line was used to transport the crop from nearby Arlesford to London where it was sold from street stalls and eaten much as you would eat an ice cream today. It's unique nutritional values being recognised even then and arguably made Arlesford the watercress capital of the world. It was and still is the original "superfood"

"New House" itself was a large red bricked double fronted pile, the main part of which dated from the early eighteenth century and boasted grand entertaining rooms which were made full use of. Other friends would join us at various stages over the weekend so there was always an eclectic and lively mix of people. No matter who was there though these weekend affairs inevitably centred around the wonderful dining room. With it's beautiful fireplace, enormous mahogany table, silver candelabras and exposed floor boards it was undoubtedly the nicest and most elegant room in the house. Many great dishes were devoured there, we particularly remember our introduction to game such as rabbit, partridge, pheasant and guinea fowl. Surprisingly though one constant was watercress soup. At some stage over the weekend we would wander down the narrow lane leading to the deserted farm for our fix of cress and pay by depositing a few bob in the honesty box hanging on the entrance gate. The nearest thing to a tropical padi field as you are like to come across in the home counties, the crop is cultivated in large flooded terraces and requires a constant strong flow of fresh water. The source here comes from chalky bedrock springs and bubbles and gurgles down the hill. Conditions ideally suited to cress. It was a lovely experience and in winter time particularly once back home we could hardly wait to make a large terrine of unctuous green "potage" which could be drunk as a warming beverage at any time during the day and would invariably find it's way to place of honour as first course under the flickering candles on that wonderful table in the dining room!

Watercress Soup

Ingredients
3 or 4 Bunches of Cress
1 Red onion or several shallots peeled or 1 leek
1 Clove garlic finely chopped
20g Salted butter
2 or 3 tbsps olive oil
I litre of chicken or vegetable stock
250 mls of single cream or creme fraiche (for creamier soup)
1 stock cube (optional)
Dash Worcestershire Sauce (Optional)
Seasoning
Croutons, cream and/or cress leaves for garnish

Method

Soak and wash the watercress and remove any rough or dead stalks. Place the butter and olive oil in a large saucepan and melt with the onion or chopped leek and garlic. (Add crumbled stock cube if using) When translucent (about 10 minutes) add the watercress and wilt the leaves for a few minutes. Remove and blend in a liquidizer or food processor. Return to the saucepan, add the stock and simmer for 2 or 3 minutes. The less cooking the better to retain nutrients and the vibrant green colour and do not allow the soup to boil. Season to taste, add cream (if using) and pour into serving bowls. Place a few croutons in the centre of each serving and place a few baby cress leaves on top. For presentation drizzle cream in circles and grate a little black pepper over.



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