Tuesday, 1st November 2011
The last time I remember finding soil inside the leaves of a celery plant must have been in childhood. Like dirty salad and muddy leeks, earthy celery belongs to that era when washing vegetables was part of a ritual. Needing to wash a plant in two or three changes of water was affirmation that the food you are about to cook is the product of rich organic matter. The soil is an indication of its origins, a grubby barcode that tells you where it is from. In the case of celery, dirt is a sign that the plant been grown in the traditional way; banked up with soil to blanch it, leaving deep trenches on either side.
Celery is no longer grown like this for the mainstream. Modern hybrids do not need to be buried but grow perfectly well on the surface away from the dirt. The bitterness that would have been quelled by blanching is bred out of them. This is the familiar, white-ish green celery; harvested by machine, its leaves and root lopped away to make a neat fit in the crate. Its a dull looking food, almost calorie-free, eau-de-nil in all but one sense - the essential aroma it brings to stew and soup. We need celery in the kitchen like we need salt and onions, few braises succeed unless celery is included in the mirepoix; the chopped vegetable mixture that kick starts the scent of a bubbling stew.
There is, however, a short time in all year round celery supply when a different celery harvest takes place. Winter Fenland celery grows in the fertile black soil of Cambridgeshire’s fens. Planted in the old trench system, then harvested between October and January by hand, this celery comes to your kitchen complete with mud.
Celery loves water, I discovered. It was raining so relentlessly on the fens that look across to Ely, it is hard to imagine what this scene would look like without the screen of drizzle. The cathedral spire, about a mile away across the flat ground, shimmers in and out of view through the fog like a mirage in the wrong country. Out of the soil poke the leaves of the celery plants, enjoying every drop from the sky. This celery field is a small part of a larger farming business run by celery specialists G’s Marketing. Founded in 1952 by Guy Shropshire and now run by his son John, G’s main business is the aforementioned standard celery, supplied to supermarkets from both English and Spanish farms. But the firm is now getting into organic farming, and since the old, slow way of growing celery is in line with organic principles, the farm now produce a seasonal winter crop of Fenland celery in rotation with other vegetable crops. “The Fenland soil is famous,” says farmer George Neal, “it is highly organic matter like peat which is brilliant at giving water to the plant.” He adds that the landscape has another characteristic advantage. “The fens lie below sea level, lower than the water drains that divide them, so the plants are perpetually well supplied with moisture.”
So celery is a vessel providing a debatably interesting way to drink water, a crunchy, green glass of little calorific importance that that you can eat, so to speak. But try to break down the fragrance and flavour of celery, and it appears to have no equal. There is limonene there – the citrus note that may also the carrier of celery’s bitterness. Various other ‘terpenes’ provide more aromas. The smell of the oil in the seeds is especially powerful. Should you ever manage to harvest some from a celery plant in the garden, dry them and grind with sea salt and other spices (see recipe), to make a delicious flavoured salt for dipping hard boiled pheasant, gulls or quails eggs. Conventional ‘celery salt’ is often flavoured artificially.
Celery seeds are also a known diuretic, known to stimulate and cleanse the kidneys. It can also be mixed with oil to treat arthritic joints although it must never be done when pregnant or in bright daylight as the seeds can increase photosensitivity. For some people celery is a dangerous allergen that triggers the most lethal reaction, anaphylaxis, constricting the throat. And celery has all sorts of added bad connotations including an association with death that goes back to Roman times - perhaps due to the obvious useful ‘cover’ its pungency can provide. In a more comic turn, it has been used by football fans as a missile to chuck at the other team’s goalie and, in a rare, exciting moment of its history, banned from Gillingham’s football stadium after complaints from a stricken player. Supporters arriving at subsequent weekly matches were frisked on arrival, to make sure they had no stalks tucked in their socks.
In the Fenland field, the celery plants are being harvested. The work is labour intensive, a matter of loosening the plants, pulling them then trimming the root end by hand into a ‘pencil point’. This part, which is connected to the celery heart, is a delicacy and is delicious braised then baked in a light egg yolk-rich cream. The trenches each side of the row of celery plants are deep. In the days of draught animals it was said that all you would see of a pony that walked along a trench pulling the harvesting equipment would be the points of his ears. Once pulled, there is the rare sight of a whole plant. Over a metre in length, they are quite beautiful with their enormous branches of green leaves. A pity that retailers insist these leaves are trimmed to save space when they can be used to make delicious lemony stock for soup. The Fenland celery takes over five months to mature, as long as it takes to rear a traditional free-range chicken. The stalks deserve more attention than to be the background flavour for stock or gravy and it would be nice to have their leaves; the whole plant can then be properly celebrated in recipes during their short season, and finally prove it is much more than just a pretty taste.
Duck and celery soup
A broth flavoured with thin slices of celery and chopped celery leaves, spiked with brandy.
1 large duck carcass or 4 mallard carcasses
a little dripping or butter
2 celery sticks, roughly chopped
2 carrots, roughly chopped
2 shallots, roughly chopped
2 juniper berries
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons brandy
1 green celery stick
a few chopped celery leaves
Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas Mark 6. Rub the carcasses with a little dripping or butter and roast until golden. Transfer to a large pan, add the vegetables and juniper berries and cover with water. Bring to the boil, skimming off any foam, then turn down to a simmer and cook for 1–2 hours. Strain the stock and pass it through a very fine sieve or a muslin cloth. Skim off any remaining fat – although a bubble or two is nice floating on the surface. Pour the stock into a clean pan, add the brandy and bring almost to boiling point. Pull the ‘strings’ from the celery and slice it very thinly across the stem. Add to the soup, cook for a further minute then serve.
Author: Rose Prince