The ‘gin clear’ waters of the chalk streams that lead into the River Itchen, the River Test and others, bring nutrients and give life to a rich variety of plants and animals such as ‘Nasturtium officinale’, known to us simply as watercress. This pungent leaf was to be found across rural Hampshire and Dorset and harvested from beside these streams and rivers by the local working men and women to supplement their diet. When food was sparse and the cupboard was bare, it was eaten raw or within two slices of bread to form a sandwich. Full of vitamins and minerals, watercress consumption was able to give those on a poor diet a boost in essential nutrients and children were encouraged to eat it to help them grow.
Commercial production of watercress established in the early 1800s and Alresford, near to Winchester, established itself as the centre of watercress production. The railway line arrived in 1865 and connected this little market town to central London. The demand for watercress was such that crops were harvested, tied into neat little posies and then shuttled off to London to be sold at Covent Garden Market within hours. The ‘Watercress Line‘ still runs today albeit a short route from Alresford to Alton, for tourists and enthusiasts, and with both vintage diesel and steam engines!
I had the pleasure of travelling the Watercress Line on a visit to the annual Watercress Festival, in Alresford. Not your usual ‘park and ride’, signs took me from Winchester to the village of Ropley and on to a huge field before taking a short walk to Ropley station. There I boarded a glorious steam train and huffed and tooted all the way to Alresford where the passengers spilled out onto the platform and onto the festival. The streets were lined with local businesses, food stalls and activities. It was fascinating to learn about how this water loving plant grows as well as seeing it being used in lots of different ways. Cabinet Rooms favourites The Gourmet Grilled Cheese Company were doing a roaring trade and so were Long Barn lavender growers and Winchester Distillery!
Paul Bowler, Winchester Distillery’s main man, moved to Alresford to larger premises so that he could make more gin and be near to an essential ingredient; watercress! In fact, his new distillery is situated right next to the watercress beds and he is given permission to stride out and gather a handful whenever he needs to. Yes, Paul’s ‘Twisted Nose Gin‘ contains watercress and its bittersweet, peppery properties give his gin a little kick and mineral freshness. And why ‘Twisted Nose’? Its name, ‘Nasturtium’, means just that!