It is spring! At least it is in the greenhouse; outdoors we will have to wait a little longer. You can bring a touch of spring into your home by growing a little pot of garden cress on the window sill. It has something rather old-fashioned and nostalgic about it… It always reminds me of my grandmother: a soft-boiled egg, some brown bread, a sprinkling of garden cress, mixed with a little vegetable oil and a drop of vinegar… It takes me almost 50 years back in time. Back then, enjoying my sandwich, I could never have imagined that I would one day become one of the world’s largest professional garden cress producers. If only my grandmother knew!
Garden cress is a very old product. Garden cress originates from northern Africa, and it is also found in the wild in the Middle East, Turkey, and Persia (Iran): on the caravan route of the Silk Road. The tiny edible plant sometimes travelled all over the world. Silk was purchased by merchants in China. They set off on foot to Constantinople (Istanbul), from where they sold the silk to people in the western world.
‘What does this have to do with garden cress?’ I hear you ask. Garden cress was a kind of survival package for travellers. If there was no fresh food available, the travellers would add water to a handful of garden cress seeds in a leather bag in order to let them germinate. After a few days, the garden cress could be eaten as a peppery salad, giving the travellers energy for the onward journey. As water could sometimes be scarce, the travellers sometimes had to resort to other options. The garden cress was watered with the urine of the group. Don’t try this at home!
The technique of germinating seeds using camel urine did actually turn out to be a good system for many seeds. The high salt content allows the seeds to germinate at a more gentle pace than clean water. This technique is now much used in the horticultural sector. Another clever idea from that time was that if the caravan passed close to an oasis, some garden cress would be sown so that it would flower and then be picked up by a following caravan. This is how garden cress travelled along with people around the old world.
Back to the present day. Garden cress sprouts so quickly that it really brings a sense of spring. Most supermarkets and upmarket greengrocers introduce special offers on these edible shoots around Easter. We also see this in our nurseries. Spring and garden cress simply go well together.
After the winter, we feel the need for fresh products. The glucosinolates (natural chemicals producing the sharp, peppery flavour) stimulate your body to boost your resistance – a kind of wake-up call for your immune system. Try it! The caravan travellers were pretty smart.