We could all be forgiven for thinking that celery is celery, but in fact the main crop of celery in the UK stops growing around October depending on the weather. The frosts would destroy a normal crop if grown by normal methods. So how does Fenland Celery manage to thrive right up until the end of the year?
Much like other crops where the earth is banked up over the plant, Fenland celery growers adopted this method to protect the green vegetable from the frosts, which would kill it overnight without the added insulation. One side effect of this is that the celery produces less chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants. This gives it a milder, nuttier flavour as well as its distinctive pale stems, a process known as ‘blanching’.
The Victorians came to appreciate this fresh produce out of its usual season so much that it became quite the delicacy. It was brought down from the Cambridgeshire Fens daily by train to London’s markets, including the original Covent Garden. In fact, in its heyday Fenland celery was given pride of place in a celery vase on many Victorian Christmas tables.
Protected name status
Now as it did back then, the rich, peaty and deep soil of the fens ensures that any produce grown there receives all the nutrients it needs to be a healthy plant. It’s these soil conditions that encouraged the European Union to grant Fenland celery Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status in 2013. The accompanying logo means that the celery is now protected in EU law, and can only be grown on the Fens of Cambridgeshire using specific methods.
A fashion for heritage crops
The recent revival of Fenland celery shows that people have an interest in heritage crops, just like with purple carrots, heirloom tomatoes and Romanesco cauliflowers. A different vegetable on the plate creates new aesthetics, new flavours and great talking points between the cook and the eater. Fenland celery is still presented with the traditional extra root attached, and is usually trimmed to a point. A few extra leaves are left on too, that can still be used by adding them to a stock or a salad.
Whether braised in white wine or part of a tarte tatin, Fenland celery can be used as a feature vegetable in the UK between October and early January. It’s available at some London markets, many Waitrose supermarkets and Ocado. This year (2015), due to the mild weather, it should be on sale until mid-January.
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