“Watercress is the healthiest vegetable in the world”
It’s peppery, spicy and has a slight radish-like flavour. Watercress can be used in a number of dishes, but what is needed for the growth of this little vegetable? Since 1938, watercress has been grown by Sint-Lucie in Lauw near Tongeren in Belgium. Now, nearly 80 years later, grandson Frank Vansimpsen and his sister Christel run the company, and they are familiar with the process from seed to packaging.
“Each year in early April, the old watercress is removed, and we plant new cress,” says Frank, who took over the company from his parents with his sister in 2010. “We grow our own seed by bolting the plants in June. Before we can sow, all of the old plants are first removed, and the trays have to be thoroughly cleaned. Because the seeds are very small, we mix them with sand. After two weeks the plants sprout, and we put water in the trays. After another four weeks, the cress can be harvested.”
Frank Vansimpsen and his sister Christel run the company.
Only white watercress can be found at the cultivation company in Lauw. According to Frank, there’s also a red version, although he sticks with his expertise of white cress. “I’ve heard about red watercress, but we stick with our trade because we just don’t have the space to try new things. Besides, we don’t have demand for it either.” Frank says nothing is actually difficult when it comes to growing white watercress, the only disadvantage is that everything has to be done manually. “The watercress is grown in trays of half a metre deep, in soil through which natural spring water constantly flows. Clear water is especially important for the vegetables. During the summer months, we grow outdoors, and in winter, plastic covers are placed over the trays, to protect the plants against frost. We grow throughout the year. Our prices are also the same throughout the year.”
The entrepreneur indicates he doesn’t use pesticides, simply because the cress isn’t troubled by diseases, according to him. “Watercress is a purifying plant due to the microfibres on its roots. Because of that, it’s also used to clean the water in fish ponds,” Frank says. Although the watercress isn’t affected by diseases, other plants can be a threat to the small vegetable. “One weed that bothers us is horsetail. This herb is very difficult to combat. Snails are also a problem for us. Because we try to grow as naturally as possible, this is a problem we have to accept. We always wash the bundles of watercress before they are packed, but we can never remove all of the small animals within the bundle. It continues to be a problem we cannot exclude. After all, we grow in the open air, and not in our sitting-room.” One disadvantage of watercress is its short shelf life. Yet the watercress grower has managed to extend the shelf life by some days. “Thanks to our packaging the watercress doesn’t last for four days, but for ten,” Frank says. “We pack in micro-perforated flow-pack bags. We started a new packing line, and we now work with preprinted film. Thanks to the packaging, the watercress has a longer shelf life.”
Over the years,Sint-Lucie has expanded into a company with seven locations. Since Belgian supermarket chains Delhaize and Colruyt became customers of the grower, Frank has had to expand considerably. “By now we have 2.5 hectares of land,” the grower says. “Our company has grown slightly in recent years, but not much. This is because we have reached the maximum of our capacity, and we don’t want to acquire more nurseries. I therefore don’t think we’ll expand any more. New markets aren’t really an objective, because we have reached our limit. Besides, we drive to Brussels six days per week, so that we can sell the watercress on wholesaler’s market CE. Customers from all over the Benelux buy their products here. From there, our watercress is destined for customers in the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium. The watercress of Delhaize and Colruyt is delivered directly to their depot.”
The watercress grower doesn’t just supply wholesalers and supermarkets. This year, Sint-Lucie worked with meal kit company HelloFresh for the first time. “That was a very pleasant cooperation,” Frank says. “This naturally involves very large volumes, so unfortunately we can only do it twice a year. Everything is done through our customer Vroegop in Amsterdam, who supplies to HelloFresh. We’re already looking forward to the next order.”
If the mashed cress, watercress soufflé or sorbet are no longer exciting, you can always try watercress beer. According to Frank, watercress beer was thought of when he was drinking it, albeit without watercress as ingredient. “It’s a very tasty beer, and it’s especially successful locally. We would naturally like to become better known nationally and internationally, but that’s probably going to be difficult, because there are already so many kinds of beer. But it’s a unique product, no other beer based on watercress exists in the world. It’s the only thing our watercress is processed into.”
Whether it’s in salad, beer or pasta: sales of watercress are going well for Sint-Lucie. “The future of watercress seems guaranteed to me, considering it’s the healthiest vegetable in the world,” Frank says. “And as for our company, we’ll have to wait and see if there will be successors, like my sister and I, and our parents before us. My children are only seven and ten years old, and my sisters doesn’t have any, so we’ll see where it all ends. We can only do our best to keep our company healthy, so that they can have the best possible inheritance.”
Publication date: 10/4/2017
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