VII: Watercress

How watercress sustained Victorian street urchins.

A close-up of watercress sprouts. Photo by Nebular Group / Unsplash
A close-up of watercress. Photo by Nebular Group / Unsplash

Good morning. Today is septidi, the 17th of Brumaire, Year CCXXXI. We celebrate le cresson, a salad veggie that floats.

Watercress, with its long harvestable season and high density of nutrients, has long been pushed as a nutritious snack, dating in the written record back to the ancient Mediterreanean. The Greeks believed that eating watercress would make you witty (I guess because of the peppery taste on your tongue). For Persians, watercress was something fed to children to teach them about restraint and humility. If you went hunting and returned with no quarry, your only meal was fistfuls of cress.

Watercress came to England in the year XVI (1808), when a man named William Bradbery set up a farm on a fresh spring near the mouth of the Thames in Kent. The semi-aquatic plant was already well-known throughout Britain and Europe at the time as a delicious salad or sandwich addition, but had until then been gathered wild. Bradbery's cultivation methods stumbled upon the remarkable growth rate of watercress and allowed him to push a steady, enormous supply of the stuff upriver to London and points beyond.

The sudden influx of watercress caused a sensation, as the cheap and tasty treat could serve as a substitute breakfast for the workers who had flooded the city. Watercress selling became a profession of its own, usually undertaken by the very old or young, and always by the impoverished. With a hamper of watercress they had tied into bundles, the sellers would fan out in the city crying "woo-ater-cress" all morning in the hopes of selling the entire penny's worth they could carry.