In the past, everyone knew Erfurt watercress. Today there is only one professional watercress grower left in the former watercress capital of Germany. But the plant is still popular today.
The Erfurt watercress and its cultivation are on the Thuringian List of Intangible Cultural Heritage according to the provisions of UNESCO. According to the UNESCO definition, this includes, for example, customs, representations, forms of expression, knowledge and skills worthy of preservation – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces belonging to them, the communities, groups and, where appropriate, individuals. The watercress from Erfurt fulfils these conditions.
What is watercress?
Watercress is a marsh or water plant that is used as a culinary herb or vegetable.
The plant originally grew in Eurasia, North Africa and Macaronesia. Its flowering period begins in May and lasts until July, depending on the weather. The fruits ripen from September to October. The pods are wind dispersers and their seed also spreads by sticking to the feathers of water birds. This is how it has spread over the years and today you can discover watercress all over the world.
The plant grows particularly well in nutrient-rich flowing waters. There it prefers sunny to semi-shady locations.
Watercress is harvested from September to April.
How did watercress come to Erfurt?
Watercress was already a well-known foodstuff among the “ancient Greeks and Romans”. At that time, however, people still gathered the plant in its natural habitats. It was not cultivated until later.
In the 17th century, the area between Erfurt and Hochheim was a floodplain that was regularly flooded in spring. Throughout the year, three springs supplied the area with water. Watercress grew wild and lush.
Historians do not really agree on when and who laid out the first cultures in Germany. There is evidence that Nicolaus Meißner planted crops around 1650. At about the same time, Christian Reichart developed the blade cultivation system (moat) in the Erfurt area, which is still used today. He was a pioneer and promoter of commercial horticulture in Erfurt and also established Erfurt’s reputation as a flower city. In his garden pond, watercress grew by itself and he managed to develop a controlled form of cultivation for the wild growth.
In the 18th century, watercress was a real Erfurt speciality. It is said that even Napoleon I ate the winter vegetable during a business trip to Erfurt. He was so enthusiastic that he immediately sent for two gardeners from Erfurt to come to France and grow watercress for him.
The plant has been cultivated in the Kressepark Erfurt since the 18th century. From 1929 to 1932, most of the cultivation was in the hands of 5 family farms, which kept improving the existing cultivation system. The increase in production meant that the vegetables could be supplied to many cities and countries.
Today, there is only a small area of cultivation left in Erfurt, which the Fischer family cultivates.
Visit to the Erfurt Watercress Blade
Today, the Erfurt watercress is the only preserved active blade in Erfurt. There is a small museum in a small room where you can also buy watercress and watercress products. There are pictures on which you can learn not only about the plant but also about the history of the Fischer family. If you then meet Ralf Fischer and he begins to tell the story, the history comes alive and time flies by almost imperceptibly.
Over swaying boards across the blades
During my visit to Erfurt, conditions were actually optimal for the growth of watercress: 10-12 degrees, good water supply from below and unfortunately also good water supply from above. Following a muddy path, we arrived at an area covered with a protective net (against the birds, which also like watercress). Here is the water-filled ditch, the so-called blade, where the watercress grows. To the side of the ditch are heaped-up ramparts to protect the plants from cold winds.
The blade is only about 40 to 60 centimetres deep and the water flows slowly through it. With the help of an inlet and outlet, the flow rate can be regulated and the basin can be drained in summer. Then the seeds are sown. When the plant begins to germinate, the water level is raised so that the plant can grow.
The individual small fields are reached via long wooden planks. These are harvested one after the other so that the fields can grow again in peace. Yes, and it was precisely over these wet, slightly slippery and wobbly planks that we went to one of the fields to harvest.
Kneeling on the board, the plant shoots are then cut off at a length of about 12-15 centimetres with a sharp knife and placed in a basket floating in the water. When the basket is full, Ralf Fischer knows that he has harvested about 2 kilograms.
How is watercress processed?
Watercress tastes fresh, slightly spicy and reminded me somewhat of the taste of radishes. Due to its high vitamin content, the plant is an important source of nutrients in winter.
Cooks particularly like to use watercress in salads and soups. The plant can only be eaten when fresh. It no longer tastes good when dried. Wrapped in foil and stored in the refrigerator, it can be kept for a week. At room temperature, Erfurt watercress should be eaten after one day if possible.
Watercress as medicine?
The plant is regarded as an ancient medicinal plant that stimulates the appetite, promotes metabolism and is diuretic and analgesic. Naturopaths like to recommend it for purifying the liver, lungs and stomach.
Erfurter Brunnenkresse Fischer
Hochheimer Straße 23
The visit was part of a press trip to Thuringia.