The perfect ingredient: Willowdene Farm watercress

James Wellock travels to Willowdene Watercress and Trout Farm in North Yorkshire to learn more about the perfect watercress.

Just beyond the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors is Willowdene Farm, owned and run by the Smith family, who have grown watercress and farmed trout in the area for decades. Willowdene watercress has a devoted following amongst leading Yorkshire chefs – so what makes this peppery product from Pickering so special?

“It’s special because it is grown traditionally,” says Eric Smith, owner of Willowdene Farm. “It’s allowed to grow in its own time – naturally. I think that’s the secret of the great taste and great leaves as well.”

Watercress is a semi-aquatic plant and grows naturally in running water, however large commercial farms now grow the product in vast artificial beds and increasingly in soil. At Willowdene, the watercress is grown traditionally in natural spring water that comes out of the ground at a constant temperature of 10℃ – meaning the watercress can be grown year-round.

Being in such an isolated rural area and in close proximity to a national park also adds to the fantastic freshness of this product. On the edge of the North Yorkshire Forest Park,  Pickering has very clean air, is free from pollution and has high-quality soil so the watercress can grow as cleanly as possible. This pure environment makes for a pure product that’s packed with flavour and nutrients.

No chemicals or pesticides are used. Eric explains, “Occasionally if it looks slightly hungry we may give it give it a light dressing of fertiliser but mainly it gets its nutrients from the spring water – we have a very good supply of pure spring water.”

Watercress has more than 15 essential vitamins and minerals and is recognised as the original superfood. Its hot peppery flavour is a result of being a member of the mustard family – and it has long been a British delicacy as salads leaves, soups and sauces.

Just 20 minutes down the road from Willowdene Farm is the Michelin-starred Star Inn at Harome, owned by chef Andrew Pern. Having grown up in the area, Andrew places great emphasis on using locally grown North Yorkshire produce in his cooking, which has been described as a ‘modern Yorkshire’ style.  

Andrew is a big fan of Pickering watercress, and prizes its exceptional freshness and strong almost metallic, peppery flavour. Watercress features heavily on the Star’s menu including in one of its signature dishes – a Grilled Black Pudding and Pickled Watercress starter. “The iron flavour and how it’s so fresh makes watercress perfect for our signature dish – it’s amazing,” Andrew says.

As well as the signature starter, Andrew uses Pickering watercress in many of his salads such as his Caesar Salad and as a traditional garnish in his red grouse dish – see recipe here.

Andrew says: “You can virtually taste the iron in the leaves and it being cut so near to our restaurant makes it so fresh. It’s just a great part of the whole combination. Another perfect ingredient.”

Did you know?

  • Watercress has more than 15 essential vitamins and minerals and is recognised as the original superfood
  • It is a member of the mustard family
  • Hippocrates, the father of medicine, believed it to have healing abilities and so located his first hospital beside a stream so that he could grow a plentiful supply of watercress for treatment
  • Greek and the Roman soldiers ate watercress before battle to increase vigour and bravery
  • Watercress contains more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach and more folate than bananas
  • It is believed to be an aphrodisiac
  • It was once drunk as a tea – served with lemon and sugar
  • Believed to be good for hair growth
  • Watercress stems are hollow
  • It can and has been used as a breath freshener