Duerden Brothers - the family business producing watercress for over 100 years

PUBLISHED: 13:13 09 July 2014

Connor, James, Peter and Paul Duerden

Connor, James, Peter and Paul Duerden

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Demand for watercress has boomed thanks to its superfood status and that’s good news for one hard-working family. Emma Mayoh reports

Rows of watercressRows of watercress

Chefs, restaurateurs, supermarkets and diners all clamour for James and Paul Duerden’s watercress. Award-winning pubs like The Cartford Inn, chef Paul Heathcote and huge catering companies, including Bolton-based Oliver Kay, are all fans of the peppery green leaf grown by the brothers in Great Eccleston. But their biggest fan is James’ son Connor. Whenever the mood takes him, the four-year-old demands a batch of his dad’s tasty watercress soup.

James, 45, said: ‘He calls it green soup. He absolutely loves it and asks for it a lot. I’ll bring a load of watercress home from work and cook us some up with lots of crusty bread and big croutons. It’s great.’

Connor is not alone. The popularity of watercress is probably at an all-time high due to its status as a superfood. It has no fewer than 15 vital nutrients and minerals, more vitamin C than oranges, more vitamin E than broccoli, more calcium than whole milk and more iron than spinach.

Watercress also has exceptionally high levels of beta-carotene which is converted into vitamin A in the body to promote growth and development, immunity, and it can benefit vision, hair, skin, nails, bones and teeth. It has even been claimed to reduce wrinkles on your face!

WatercressWatercress

This is nothing new - even the Egyptians believed in its power to cleanse the blood and detox the liver. In the 1700s watercress was in eaten in cones, like an ice cream, and was used as a breath freshener.

The Duerden family have years of experience in growing fruit and vegetables. Duerden Brothers was first set up by John Duerden in 1900 when he started supplying produce to shops in Nelson, where the company also had a site until 25 years ago. It was after the Second World War the family opened the site in Great Eccleston. Growing conditions were better so everything was moved in 1986. The focus was put into growing and supplying cress as competition for salad growing from other countries increased. They later started growing bean sprouts and now the two are their main crops.

In 2008, following a visit to Tokyo to get expert advice, the brothers invested in state-of-the-art machinery to wash and pack the produce so it arrives very fresh to customers. Now they supply watercress, with help from a national wholesaler Sunsalads, all year round from Glasgow to London.

James said: ‘We decided to move from fruit and vegetables to salad cress and then we went into solely watercress. There is not a lot of watercress grown in the north of England so we thought it would be a good thing to do. We are the main grower.

James and Peter Duerden with Mick Proctor harvesting the watercressJames and Peter Duerden with Mick Proctor harvesting the watercress

‘Because we are a small family firm it means we can harvest and have everything packed and get it delivered in three hours. It’s very fresh. We’re very proud of the way we do things. By teaming up with Sunsalads it means we always have a supply if we are short in the winter months. It works well for us.’

It is usually grown in a spring fed, chalky bed and is traditionally produced in Hampshire. However, unusually, James and Paul grow their watercress indoors in greenhouses with a constant supply of fresh water running through the beds.

It was when the brothers saw a rise in the superfood’s popularity that they started to increase the watercress side of the business. But it has not been an easy ride. Just as they started to diversify, the recession hit. They were faced with big investment when they needed to tighten their belts. As well as wanting the business to work, there was also the added responsibility of continuing the family legacy.

James said: ‘A couple of years ago we could see how popular watercress was getting as more and more chefs were choosing to use it. Growing indoors means we can keep up the supply year round.

James Duerden putting seeds onto a sowing matJames Duerden putting seeds onto a sowing mat

‘You don’t want to be the one who affects the future of something that has been a part of your family for generations. We had to make it work. I’ve worked on the family farm since being a very young boy. I have lots of very happy memories. Neither of us wanted to see that go.’

But their hard work has paid off. Today they grow and harvest around 50 tonnes – that’s about 15,000 bags a week. They also grow around 1,200 tonnes of bean sprouts. The brothers have their sights set on making Duerden Brothers last for many more generations.

James said: ‘We want to compete with the really big boys. There is no reason we can’t. Over the past four years we have grown the business really well. It has been hard, but definitely worth it.’

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