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FoodPaths - March, 2012
The Watercress Way
Catherine Wainer, Sausalito Springs

Catherine Wainer, Sausalito SpringsJust when I think I’ve become accustomed to early morning wake-up calls inviting us to harvests, animal births and market visits, the phone rings at 7 a.m. The rain pounds against my windows;  the voice is enthusiastic. ” C’mon over!  The work crews begin cutting in about an hour.”  Watercress awaits.  It’s a typical Northern California winter day. Fog enshrouded. Wet. Watercress is an aquatic plant.  It grows in water and can be harvested in the rain. I’m on my way.

I know little about watercress except that it has a peppery, tangy flavor with a crunch, and that Sausalito Springs, one of the nation’s uniquely respected organic watercress growers, has a great product, sold largely to restaurants and wholesalers.  You can also order it yourself and have it delivered overnight. Not for rain, fog or traffic tie-ups would I turn down an invitation to sing in the rain with this water-based green.

extends her hand with a sprig of watercressCatherine Wainer, Sausalito Springs owner, extends her hand with a sprig of watercress stretched beautifully across the palm.  “When we eat watercress,” she tells me, “we are eating the force of life.  Look.  See the roots.”  She points to the white strands wrapped around the delicate stems.  “This plant is self-perpetuating, fast-growing. Put a bouquet in a glass of water and it will start growing roots overnight.  Cut off the leaves and watch it grow.  Soon there will be a fresh bundle.”

I have just been given a lesson in watercress growing, although I’m certain it’s not quite that simple.

Watercress is 90 per cent waterWatercress is 90 per cent water, with hollow stems that float over thick growing beds rooted in fresh water.  A grower rarely has to re-seed as the crop re-generates with each harvest.  The crew is hand-harvesting an early winter crop. The beds look like fields of vibrant emeralds contained in perfect packages of irrigated, stone masonry rows.

Sausalito Springs is a low tech business driven by high tech efficiency.  About to celebrate 25 years of success in a market environment that has seen more than its share of changes, Sausalito Springs has stayed local, never veered from its commitment to a high quality product, and continues to maintain its celebratory approach to life and the development of a personal approach to doing business.

Catherine credits “the magic of teamwork” to her success.  Pam Royall is her right-hand managing director, running all daily operations. A small team hand cuts, washes, weighs, and packages the two pound bags of watercress.

A small team hand cuts, washes, weighs, and packages the two pound bags of watercress

Click here to see more photo of the harvest.

Following the hand-cut harvest, the watercress-filled baskets move to the wash room, housed in a former creamery, where the watercress undergoes a triple wash, one of them vinegar-based, and are then packed two-pounds at a time, ready to go on the plate.  From there, the watercress rests in the coolers until they are picked up and shipped out the same day.

nutritional superfoodOnce the day’s shipment was out the door we followed Catherine to her kitchen where she prepared an amazingly simple and flavorful puree from her childhood and offered insights into watercress, a member of the mustard family, as a nutritional “superfood,” filled with essential nutrients such as iron, calcium, folic acid and Vitamins A, C and E. One of the world’s oldest foods, watercress is believed to be a source of phytochemicals and antioxidants, and has received, along with kale, mustard greens, collard greens, a perfect score of 1000 on the ANDI nutrient density scale.(i.e. The Aggregate Nutrient Density Index ranks the health of a food according to the number of nutrients it delivers per calorie.)  With more iron than spinach, more calcium than milk, three times as much Vitamin E as lettuce, watercress packs a powerful punch in low calorie/high nutrient intake.  Its versatility in recipes from soups and sauces to salads and sides around the world is well known.

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Catherine Wainer Catherine Wainer didn’t set out to be an organic watercress grower.  Born in Belgium, Wainer arrived in Boston with her parents (her father was a physician), returned to Paris as a student, met her journalist husband, and “bounced around a bit,” moving from New York City, to Santa Cruz, CA., before finally landing in Sausalito, CA., where, in 1988, the couple started a landscaping business.

Soon the couple moved to an overgrown lot high above the Marin County hills, cleared and terraced the property, and upgraded an old well to provide fresh water for a vegetable garden that was soon selling trendy micro greens and vegetables to local restaurants. Il Fornaio, one of the Bay Area’s first farm fresh restaurants, purchased the couple’s entire first crop.  Shortly thereafter, Bradley Ogden’s Lark Creek Inn, and Greens at Fort Mason, came calling, asking for specialty crops, specifically, watercress. Sausalito Springs was born.

Within two years, the tiered vegetable garden in Sausalito gave way to three acres of watercress beds in the rolling hills of Sonoma County near the Pacific Ocean.  The farm, one of the original organic farms (number 75) was designated certified organic by the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) from its earliest days.  Today, Sausalito Springs watercress is grown in fresh well water, hand-harvested with scissors, tops only, triple-washed, hydro-cooled and hand-packed daily. Its success is reflected by how much is sold to a loyal, national community of culinary professionals, high end chefs, wholesalers and individuals, largely generated by word-of-mouth referrals. Sausalito Springs remains a closely-knit family farm, even closing for a full day so that two full-time workers could attend the birth of their first grandchild.

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“It’s difficult to make a living in agriculture,” said Catherine. “We were never in it for the money.  It’s a quality of life business. You never know. You cannot predict or plan.  Climate change has become more of a challenge. Last year we had to shut down mid-summer due to excessive weather spikes.”

Brandon Guenther, Chef/Owner of Rocker Oysterfeller’s Restaurant At that moment, Brandon Guenther, Chef/Owner of Rocker Oysterfeller’s Restaurant + Saloon, and Firefly Catering at the Valley Ford Hotel; a short drive away on the road to Bodega Bay, arrived to pick up an order of watercress and Sausalito Springs vinegar.  Brandon, and his wife Shona Campbell, met Catherine when they first set up shop several years ago.  “It’s a wonderful product,” Brandon said, echoing the words of many, many other chefs.  “Watercress is healthy, low calorie, versatile and tastes wonderful. There is never a day when we don’t have at least one dish featuring the green watercress on our menu.”

“Many young people want to farm,” offered Catherine, as she spoke about the challenges of being a grower.  “There’s a romance to it. But it’s a lot of work… down and dirty work.  If you are hit with a frost like we were last year, you lose an entire crop.  You never sleep during harvest…cash flow is erratic.  The water pumps break down.  Delivery vans don’t show up. The Chefs get it; people who hold a fantasy of farming, not so much.

“The animals here think this is their personal farm. They love watercress.  Skunks, baby skunks, gophers, feral cats, raccoons, raccoon babies…they like the mud and the abundance of grubs and worms. The wild turkeys sometimes get stuck in the beds when they are unable to raise their wings.

“You never know what to expect when you are a farmer.  Restaurants are always changing.  Now there are smaller plates, and more informal environments.  We are dependent on water.  I don’t know what I would do if I did not farm.  I’ve been a CCOF inspector for years.  I could use my experience as an organic grower to help others that want to follow the organic route.  I speak three languages.  I could study ballet.  Sometimes life itself makes those decisions.  For me, it’s been a wonderful way of living.  I love what I do. You just never know what’s around the corner.  The quality of what we grow and the life we live makes up for the challenges.

“I call the roots of watercress the force of life because they show us the power to re-generate,” said Catherine.  “We can learn so much from a simple plant. Cut the sprigs, give the stems water, and watch the roots flourish.  They will nourish themselves, showing growth and depth of curiosity as they explore something new. It’s the watercress way of celebrating the force of life… and applies to all creatures.”