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There’s Celery and then there’s Fenland Celery. For a few short weeks at this time of year this delicious root vegetable arrives on our shelves just as the main English celery crop ends. Grown in the rich, peaty soil of Cambridgeshire’s Fenlands, this particular crop now has its own Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, assuring where and how it is grown. The practice of earthing-up the soil over the plant both protects it from frosts and reduces chlorophyll and thus blanches the celery. The result is crunchy stems, milder and paler than unblanched celery, and an earthy flavour.
Extending the celery season in this way goes back to the 19th century when Fenland Celery was considered to be a delicacy and was loaded onto trains to London on a daily basis right up to Christmas. The Victorian table was incomplete without a celery vase to offer the vegetable with leaves untrimmed.
Fenland Celery is always presented with extra root that is traditionally trimmed to a point. This is, arguably, the most delicious part of all, so, don’t be tempted to discard it. Celery is one of the culinary Holy Trinity of vegetables – Celery, onion and carrot are the starting point for so many savoury dishes in so many cuisines. Only lovage leaves, or Celeriac root, come close to the flavour celery imparts, but neither can give that texture.
Fenland Celery can be treated like any other celery – peeled and served raw alongside a cheeseboard; chopped and added to apple, grapes, walnuts and mayonnaise for a Waldorf Salad; dipped into an anchovy sauce; cooked and paired with cream or blue cheese in a creamy Celery soup; cut into wedges and braised in chicken or vegetable stock and butter as a vegetable side dish, maybe finished in the oven with a topping of breadcrumbs and parmesan. There is a Roman dish, Spezzatino di Vitello, or Braised Veal with Celery which is wonderfully simple and delicious. It calls for nothing more than braising veal, onion, celery, olive oil, white wine and seasoning – a good recipe where the celery shines through can be found on page 191 of Rachel Roddy’s book Five Quarters.