all cressed up
celebrating the British watercress season
When the Watercress King and Queen beg in t heir procession down Broad street in alresford, perched atop a horse-drawn cart and dispensing bundles of bright-green leaves to crowds of onlookers, the arrival of the UK’S first new-season crop can be considered well and truly( if a little eccentrically) celebrated. the event, starring two garlanded and gowned local schoolchildren, is a highlight of the hampshire town’s annual Watercress Festival, which will take place next sunday.
since leaves were first nibbled from chalk streams and ditches here centuries ago, the area has remained at the heart of the country’s watercress production. as well as swathes of the wild stuff – which can still be found in crystal-clear rivers – acres of commercially grown cress beds are flushed with flowing, chalk-filtered water and harvested daily throughout the season. the leaves are then chilled and whisked off on lorries to the supermarkets. Visitors to the festival, however, may well arrive on the railway line that once shuttled crops from hampshire to London. the Watercress Line, completed in 1865, ensured that the perishable stems could be picked one day and on sale in their wicker-basket ‘flats’ in covent Garden early the next. It’s now a tourist attraction and will ferry festivalgoers to the centre of alresford to take part in the watercress-eating competition (where a Guinness World record is at stake), follow live cookery demonstrations, and browse markets stalls bearing sausages, gin and ice cream – all made with the peppery leaf.