A guide to French watercress (cresson). How to eat it without it being too bitter, its health benefits, how it's harvested and easy recipes.
Seasons in France & Varieties
Autumn, Winter and Spring.
September - May. Best watercress harvest is in December.
There are 2 varieties in France: Le cresson d'alénois (eaten when young) and le cresson de fontaine (bigger leaves and more spicy/peppery).
What is Watercress?
It's a semi-aquatic plant (Nasturtium officinale) from the mustard family. Mainly grown in Northern France: Ile-de France and Normandy. Watercress thrives in cool flowing streams, where it grows submerged, floating on the water, or spread over mud surfaces.
However, it should not be confused with the garden ornamental nasturtium (genus Tropaeolum) which is not closely related to watercress.
According to Aprifel for the French Ministry of Agriculture, watercress is high in vitamin C (70% daily value) and K. It also contains Calcium, Potassium, Magnesium, Vitamin B6 and a trace of iron. It's also a good antioxidant.
According to the Watercress Company, it can help reduce the visible signs of skin ageing as it can also increase collagen production.
How to Choose and Store
When choosing watercress, ensure leaves are dark green and consume quickly within 2 days. Store in the fridge. Wash leaves in water with a few drops of vinegar.
Fun fact: Edith Cresson was French Minister of Agriculture (1981-83) and grew to French Première Ministre (1991-92).
Can You Eat It Raw?
Watercress can indeed be eaten raw. It's the best way to benefit from their healthy properties once washed well.
When eaten raw, it tastes slightly bitter and very peppery like mustard. When cooked, the bitterness disappears - it even has some slightly cheesy flavours which I urge you to seek out.
Watercress Recipes and Food Pairings
In France, le cresson is enjoyed eaten raw in salads - either as a side salad or with cheese before dessert. Most of all, when cooked, it's blitzed into soups as its vibrant deep greens make this extra healthy.
The most famous French recipe is the classic, soupe au cresson or watercress soup. This freezes well too.
Likewise, the peppery taste is delicious alongside something more sweet, like these French Onion Tarte Tatins.
Enjoy as a side with roast chicken or turkey and served with lemon sauce.
Paired well with goat's cheese, add a few leaves - either raw or cooked - to this deliciously creamy goat cheese pasta sauce with toasted walnuts.