253 NOE. Ah, greate God that arte soe good,
254 that worchis not thy will is wood.
255 Now all this world is one a flood,
256 as I see well in sight.
257 This windowe I will shutt anon,
258 and into my chamber I will gonne
259 tyll thys water, soe gmeate one,
260 bee slaked through thy mighte.
Then shall Noe shutt the windowe of the arke,
and for a little space within the bordes bee shalbe scylent;
and afterwarde openinge the windowe and lookinge rownde about sayinge:
261 Lord God in majestye
262 that such grace hast granted mee
263 wher all was borne, salfe to bee!
264 Therfore nowe I am boune-
265 my wyffe, my children, and my menye-
266 with sacryfice to honour thee
267 of beastes, fowles, as thou mayest see,
268 and full devotyon.
THE CHESTER CYCLE – PLAY III – NOAH’S FLOOD (15thC) **
To the Itchen valley in Hampshire, which, like much of England, is verging on the subaquatic. Where little rivulets used to tinkle, large angry brown bruised currents shoulder sulkily through the landscape. It’s a new experience to be alarmed by nature in the south of England, it’s salutary, wakes us up, tells us to mind what we are doing. I spent childhood summers near here but years and the flood’s smudging of the landscape make it unrecogniseable. Salmon used to jump up the Test in Romsey. I doubt this happens anymore, they’re miserably accumulating slime in viscous water off the Scottish coast. Watercress was a more available pleasure – traditionally grown in both the Test and the Itchen, where the chalky soil’s easy drainage is pefect . I love it in a simple English sandwich of good white bread, slightly salted butter. The contrast in texture between the soft yielding bread and the crunch of the cress is a delight, and the peppery flavour sits perfectly in the more neutral backdrop of the bread and butter. Cucumber sandwiches give you a similar hit, without the pepperiness (try adding dill and a minute amount of wine vinegar to the cucumber 5’ before assembling. If you really want to live life on the wild side, a scrape of Marmite is delicious, but a different beast results). Traditionally it was regarded as an excellent herb for purging the body of worms, possibly because of the high content of oxalic acid and potassium. It comes trailing clouds of plaudits, from Artaxerxes onwards:
If you will rub our head with juice of watercress
Baldness you may avoid, or else you may repair.
Its juices cure far more than loss of hair.
It soothes; relief from toothache it will win,
And mixed with honey clarifies the skin.
Like many traditional salads, dear watercress has completely lost its mojo through being grown in hygenic sterilised conditions, in mineral free water, without soil. The result is really not worth the bother, like rocket, mache and the other once happy footsoldiers of a noble tribe, they’ve been lobotomised – verdant voiceless castrati, reduced to the provincial chorus line of garnish, mouthing a feeble hello to the diner before being put into the bin.
However, a brief very cheering trawl of the net reveals that several companies are now growing watercress the traditional way. Hoorah for them all. www.watercress.co.uk Grab it when you can. My grandmother, who knew about such things, never put it in the fridge, but always in the shade in a bowl of cold water. Never mind sauces for fish and chicken, which are lovely, but have a gallic whiff, let’s look at the English Way, cold, bracing and slightly damp like a boarding school dormitory. Dorothy Hartley, who has that matronly style which we love, has many ideas. Here’s a nice little salad:
Dice even waxey new potatoes and rop into a very little salted cream. Cover the bottom of a flat dish with salt tomatoes. Take a small bunch of parsley and shred finely over the tomatoes. On this green bed lay a layer of the white potatoes, and finally cover the whole with watercress sprigs. Serve dry, and hand oil and vinegar separately. Do not use pepper with this salad.
Dorothy Hartley: Food in England (1954)
** NeCastro, Gerard. The Chester Cycle PLAY III (3) – Noah’s Flood. From Stage to Page – Medieval and Renaissance Drama. http://www.umm.maine.edu/faculty/necastro/drama.