Jesse Rose's family has lived on the same property for over a century. His great-grandfather bought the house in 1903, and his grandfather was born there in 1908. The watercress has been there at least that long, probably much longer.
It grows in a tributary of the Herring River, just below a fresh water spring. Jesse says the tributary is the only creek he knows of in the river with a hard bottom, and he jumps down into it in his muck boots to show me he doesn't sink. "Anywhere else," he says, "you'd be down in the mud."
Jesse knows a lot of other cool stuff about the river. When his great-grandfather first moved here, before the river was diked in 1907, the salt water came all the way in to the Wellfleet ponds. Outside the house, which is in between Coles Neck and Pamet Point, the river was deep-water, 100 yards across, and running strong. There were oysters and striped bass on the bank where we stand.
Today you can still see the shape of the river bed. Jesse's grandfather and great-grandfather cleared most of it for farmland, but there are also plenty of briars and trees. The patch where we're standing is about 20 yards from the main river, and the creek is only a yard across, maybe two. Twice a year it fills up with watercress, those floating green leaves you see up there.
Technically watercress is an aquatic perennial in the brassica or mustard family. It grows wild in Europe and Asia and was introduced to North America long ago by European immigrants hungry for a taste of home. It needs fresh running water and especially alkaline water, so springs and fast streams are good places to look. Jesse says there are a few other spots where it grows in the Herring River, and that every spring and fall the growth chokes up the creek.
He learned to harvest it as a kid. You need a good pair of scissors and a pair of rubber boots, and then all you do is hop in and cut above the roots, at the stem. You can eat both the stems and the leaves, but you want to leave the roots because that's where the plant will come back from the following spring. Jesse likes watercress mostly in salads, and he says he has a few friends who are wild for the flavor.
He calls it a zippy cilantro; I think it tastes more like horseradish. Either way it's good, and definitely spicy—not spicy hot, but zesty. You don't want a pure watercress salad—you want to cut it with something: mache, arugula, butter lettuce.
The recipe I like comes from Darina Allen. It's on page 28 of Forgotten Skills of Cooking, right next to a watercress soup and a wild garlic pesto. It calls for watercress, wild garlic leaves, and lamb's lettuce (mache) for the greens, and these get topped with hard-boiled duck eggs and black olives. The whole thing is dressed with olive oil, balsamic, garlic, and sea salt, and Darina calls it a "lovely little clean, fresh-tasting salad."
I can't say I replicated it exactly. I didn't have wild garlic or lamb's lettuce, but I did have arugula. I used the watercress from Jesse's stream, and it was peppery and delicious. We live just across the river, but the spring's on his side. This weekend I'm headed down the road to find out if there's a patch on our side I can visit.
For more on identifying watercress, check out this guide in Mother Earth. And watch out for Fool's Cress! It looks similar and often grows nearby.
WATERCRESS SALAD WITH HARD-BOILED EGGS & OLIVES
I've adapted this somewhat from Darina's original based on availability. I think it still retains the flavor profile, though: lovely, fresh, and clean.
4 duck or chicken eggs
12 large black or green olives
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
sea salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste
2 cups arugula or butter lettuce
Hard boil the eggs and immediately move to a bowl of ice water. Wait a few minutes before peeling. Chop and set aside. Pit the olives and chop finely.
Make the dressing by mixing the oil, vinegar, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste.
Toss the greens, eggs, and olives with the dressing in a bowl. Serve at once.