Producer of the Month: The Watercress Company
Tom Amery is the Managing Director of The Watercress Company which has watercress beds in Hampshire and Dorset. It is the biggest UK producer of this, possibly the original superfood. Watercress has been revered for thousands of years by many different cultures for its health-giving properties, indeed Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, is thought to have decided on the location for his first hospital because of its proximity to a stream where watercress grew to treat his patients.
It was not until the 1990s and the noughties that scientific research was seriously undertaken by the British Watercress Industry to prove that so much of what our ancestors had claimed had roots in genuine scientific fact.
Watercress is now known to contain over 50 vital vitamins and minerals; in fact, this leafy powerhouse, gram for gram, contains more calcium than milk, more Vitamin C than oranges, more folate than banana and more Vitamin E than broccoli. It has also been proven that watercress contains powerful cancer fighting properties.
Why do you do what you do?
I joined The Watercress Company in 1999 after studying Commercial Horticulture at Writtle College and before this I had 3 years’ experience in market gardening of both ornamentals and food production.
These businesses gave me a great growing base, but I was searching for a more unique crop following an overseas trip in Zimbabwe, and Australasia. My ambition came true when I noticed an advert for a Trainee Technical Manager at The Watercress Company in Hampshire. Despite knowing nothing about the cultivation of watercress I managed to convince them I was right for the job.
Like most people, when I first started, I knew little about watercress other than I had heard it was really healthy. Over time it has become my life, in fact my wife even jokes that after 20 years she accepts it’s my second family.
I love the challenge of discovering new innovative research into watercress health, developing growing practices with the team to overcome challenges and delivering fresh watercress to consumers throughout the UK.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
We have a small but very dedicated and passionate team, and everyone is committed to ‘spreading the word’ making it a vibrant, exciting environment to work in.
We work with a range of growers who support the wider team; the skills are so varied with some staff having been with us for over 50 years and others straight out of agricultural college. The balance between experience and fresh, new talent is what makes us so successful and forward thinking.
What do you enjoy least about your job?
There is never enough time to get everything I want to, done! I’m quite a big ideas man and have lots of them but find it difficult to implement as many as I’d like to, without losing focus on what we are there to do – grow and sell watercress!
What achievement are you most proud of?
For over a decade, the UK watercress industry has collaborated with scientists looking into the remarkable health benefits of watercress. Since the mid-2000s I have been very proud to be part of a scientific process that has been able to prove that watercress can play an important role in the fight against cancer by combating the DNA damage that contributes to its development. Recently I’ve been working with a professor at Northumbria University and I expect over the next 2 years we will be at the forefront of plants’ effect on our genome through a process of changing gene expression/regulation in a topic called epigenetics.
The research has been focussed upon a unique reaction which occurs when watercress is chewed or digested. This process brings the enzyme myrosinase into contact with glucosinolates that are found abundantly in watercress – precursors for compounds called Isothiocynates (ITC’s). Much of the published research has investigated a particular type of ITC, called phenethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC) which gives watercress its distinctive peppery tastes and of which watercress is its highest natural source.
Why should we buy British produce?
Buying British obviously helps the country’s economy and British farmers, encouraging greater investment back into the countryside. We must expand our UK production base in the coming years to replace some of the farms overseas that we have built to support the UK through growth in the last 20 years. I aim to sell this watercress grown in Spain and Florida to local markets in their respective countries.
How do you think we should be promoting British?
Awareness of provenance is essential and smaller businesses like ourselves need to be supported by UK buyers, we hold an annual Festival in the Hampshire town of Alresford, known as the ‘capital of watercress’ to celebrate the start of the UK season. This gives us, and the media, an opportunity and reason to talk about British grown watercress and all its health benefits. We also regularly produce beautiful recipes that feature watercress, created by our own development chef to encourage an understanding of the versatility of watercress and how it can be used all year round. Social media is also an increasingly powerful tool to get quick, visual messages across to consumers.
We have done such a good job at promoting UK watercress that for a number of years we have had to supplement UK production with Spanish and US. While we prepare to build more UK farms (we only have 10% of what was available 100 years ago) it is now important for us to educate the consumer that these farms are still British owned and run and so the watercress is still British, and to not buy in the winter would affect our ability to expand UK production.
If you were an advertising executive what slogan would you use to promote British food?
We are extremely diverse in our culinary offer, so I would suggest you need to promote based on your attributes as there are so many opportunities and our is: Watercress, The Super Salad
What’s on the menu this evening?
I am lucky to have a limitless supply of fresh watercress on my doorstep; I not only snack on it daily but eat it with most meals. I started today with toast, olive oil Bovril and watercress; in the office or on the farm we are always snacking on it, and at home in the evenings it will always be on the table, my kids love it too….
How can people get hold of your produce?
Bags of watercress are available from all major supermarkets, we stock over 4,500 stores nationwide. We would recommend that since Watercress is best consumed as fresh as possible, you should buy it regularly, not in bulk, and store it in the fridge to keep it as cool as possible.
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