Watercress: A Victorian Superfood

Watercress vendor in 19th-century CornwallAt the mention of watercress, we often think of afternoon tea parties and anemic sandwiches with their crusts neatly removed.

But watercress was a favorite of the Victorian working classes, who valued its spicy, tangy flavor and relative cheapness — watercress sold for a few pence a bundle, a price well within the budget of even the poorest laborer. They paired it with plain, black bread for lunch and sometimes, when times were tougher than usual, dinner. For laborers living under the worst conditions, the black bread and watercress sandwich was the only food available.


The Victorian working classes actually benefitted from their watercress-based diets. A recent article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine concluded that watercress, which is packed full of vitamins and minerals, contributed to the surprisingly good health of early-Victorian laborers.

Luckily watercress could be found on almost any street corner in larger cities like London. Watercress sellers would stand with their wooden carts and baskets from sunrise to sunset, tempting every man and women who passed with mountains of glistening watercress, which they sold in paper-wrapped bunches. Customers would frequently eat their watercress right out of the paper wrappers, enjoying the plant as one would enjoy an ice-cream cone.


Watercress is available in most supermarkets for about $0.70 a bunch. The Austerity Kitchen does not recommend you eat your watercress plain, however. Instead, try it in salads and soups. Its peppery flavor goes well with many savory dishes. Here’s a delightful recipe from watercress.co.uk, a website devoted to promoting the cause of watercress:


Watercress Omelette with Mushroom and Stilton

0.5 ounces butter
2.5 ounces mushrooms
3 eggs
1 ounce Stilton, or cheese of your choice
1.5 ounces watercress

Melt the butter in a non-stick frying pan. Add the sliced mushrooms and cook over a high heat until golden brown. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon. Stir a handful of chopped watercress into the beaten eggs and season with salt and pepper. Pour the eggs into the hot pan and tilt the pan to cover the base with the mixture.

Reduce heat to moderate and cook until the omelet is just set and the underside is golden brown. Scatter the mushrooms and Stilton over the top. Slide the omelette on to the plate and fold in half. Garnish with extra watercress and serve immediately.

If you want to save a few dollars, substitute Feta cheese for Stilton. Serve this omelette with a green salad and, of course, black bread!


Baumgarthuber, Christine. Fermented Foods: The History and Science of a Microbiological Wonder. Reaktion Books, 2021.

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