Posted 22nd Oct 2015
Hamish Mellor is one of the growers behind Fenland celery, a heritage celery variety grown in the Cambridgeshire Fens
Traditionally a Victorian artisan crop grown from October to December for the Christmas market, Fenland celery has been revived by fresh produce experts G’s Fresh, who have grown celery in the Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire for over 50 years.
Fenland celery has recently been given Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status under the European Protected Food Names Scheme – the first English vegetable to be given a PGI status.
With the countryside and farming almost in his genes, Hamish Mellor is most at home when outdoors. He’s the farm manager of the historic Fenland celery crop, a crop which has been reinvigorated recently. Whilst it will never sell as much as it’s less-exclusive (and available year-round) main crop cousin; its heritage and indeed PGI status, combined with its more subtle flavour, mean it’s perfect for some special celery recipes.
The 2,300-acre Dimmock Cote Farm in Cambridgeshire, just a mile or two south of Ely, is making Fenland Celery (a Victorian favourite), and the unique way in which it is produced, fashionable once again. Hamish has been farming this area for three or four seasons now, but before this he’s had experience in other crops. Having grown up on the West Coast of Scotland with his family farming livestock on an upland hill farm, he’s used to the hard work that goes into an agricultural way of life. Some of his earliest memories on the family farm were of helping his father through the busy seasons of lambing and shearing, in all weathers.
After university he took to arboriculture for a while until a back problem meant that climbing trees with a chainsaw was no longer an option. Although having hung up his climbing harness, it doesn’t mean that he’s forgotten what a hard day’s work is – a 5:45am alarm clock wakes him up six days a week, and he’s often not at home until 7pm.
His lack of a Scottish accent is interesting, and after further enquiries we find out that his family were actually from Gloucestershire originally. He certainly considers himself an outdoor person, he enjoys thinking on his feet, the challenges that the British weather and seasons throw at him and the relentless and inflexible deadlines that they create.
Hamish enjoys the low-tech approach that this special crop requires. It’s very labour intensive and uses little to no technology. The crop is still harvested by hand and must be due to the 'earthing up' process. It’s this process combined with the growing conditions on the Fens that make the crop so special. Deep furrows are dug into the rich and dark peaty soil (Fenland soil has around 15-20% organic matter, compared with as low as 3% for some soils). This earth is then banked up around the growing crop as it firstly protects the celery from any frosts, but also 'blanches' the stems, flushing out the chloroform and making for a milder flavour and that distinctively pale stem.
The old-school system also allows Hamish to realistically target zero wastage too, which is important because Fenland doesn’t produce as bigger crop from the same amount of seeds as a modern variety would. Last year however, after planting in June, the crop was affected by heavier than average rainfall in August. The extra organic matter in the soil also means that the fields hold on to the water for longer and increases the risk of natural issues such as blight. This year, whilst it has been cooler, it’s looking like a great crop. Hamish believes that people should know where their food comes from, and believes that the Fenland Celery season (Oct-Jan) should be as cherished as the English asparagus season.
The polite, but busy farmer enjoys his own product in the more usual ways such as on cheese boards, in salads and as an integral part of a stock, but he also likes it braised or roasted. He’s even seen it presented with either peanut butter, cream cheese or hummus in the hollow, and raisins perched on top. In the long run he’d love to see Fenland Celery back on everyone’s Christmas dinner tables, as it was in the Victorian era when it was brought down daily on the train from the Cambridgeshire Fens to the capital.
For more information on Fenland Celery visit www.fenlandcelery.co.uk.