Celery is one of the triumvirate of aromatic vegetables used in the kitchen. Together with onion and carrot this collection of flavourings are referred to as a Mirepoix in French cuisine – the starting point for any casserole. With such a fundamental role to play, it is fortunate that nowadays we can import celery all year round, and have developed varieties that have extended the growing period from May until January in this country, yet such familiarity can cause us to miss out on the excitement of the traditional blanched (white) celery that is in season here for just a couple of months leading up to Christmas.
Wild celery, often known as “smallage” was used originally for medicinal purposes, treating anxiety, insomnia, rheumatism, gout, toothache and arthritis. Like many medicinal plants it is very bitter in flavour (and, I can report from my own experience, self seeds like crazy). At some time in the Middle Ages a sweeter, more tender variety was developed for eating as a vegetable and by the 19th century growers in East Anglia found that by earthing it up in September they could keep the vegetable going until the more lucrative Christmas market. The earthing-up was intended to protect the plant from frost, but by excluding the light, it also made it white in colour, more tender and sweeter in flavour.
This white Fenland celery became particularly popular in Victorian times, when its appearance at the end of the Christmas dinner as an accompaniment to Stilton was considered de rigour. The traditional method was both labour and land intensive as wide rows were required to allow for the black peaty Fenland soil to be banked up around the celery. The celery was cut by hand, traditionally using the hard root to trim the roots of other bunches into a “pencil point” shape. However the celery went to market unwashed and with the flavoursome leaves intact, so that represents some labour saving on today’s harvesting and packaging. Celery needs a lot of water when it is growing, and is today often grown hydroponically, but this does not compare in flavour with that grown in soil. The watery fens provide ideal growing conditions, including plenty of sunshine.
Such is the reputation of Fenland celery that the French have begun growing the Fenland varieties and marketing it as Fenland Celery, although it is green rather than blanched white, and, of course, not grown in the same peaty soil. The east Anglian growers have now banded together to apply to the EU for protection for the name Fenland Celery. Whilst I have in the past been critical of the relevance of many of these protected food names, the Fenland Celery application does appear to based on the sound link between product and terroir. But my acid test is always does it taste significantly different to similar products grown elsewhere. With this in mind, I conducted a taste test with half a dozen people and these, in order of preference, were the results:
- Fenland Celery – a notably more complex flavour, without bitterness, which would make it ideal for eating raw but also give a depth of flavour to cooked dishes.
- Organic green celery – somewhat too bitter for some people to enjoy raw, although good for cooking.
- Conventionally grown celery – far more white in colour than the organic celery, and without the bitterness, but also fairly tasteless. Unlikely to offend anyone, but also unlikely to provoke much enthusiasm.
For those wishing you conduct their own taste comparison, the sad news is that the Fenland Celery crop, at least on a commercial scale, is already over for this year. The exceptionally mild autumn meant that the crop couldn’t be earthed up early enough to blanche it properly because of the risk of rot setting in. So this season was instead used to experiment with some alternative techniques, including environmentally-friendly cardboard, to mimic the blanching effect without damaging the plants. So what was sold this year was comparatively green, but still with most of the distinctive taste. There are a few market gardeners who may be able to supply the Christmas market, but not living in that part of the country, I don’t know where best to advise you to try – anyone with more information please do comment.
Hopefully my local market gardener will have some of her celery at market this week. It is not blanched, but comes complete with leaves, which is always a bonus. For seasonal recipes using celery see here.