Posted 2nd Oct 2014
Gareth McCambridge 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. In celebration of British Food Fortnight (20th Sept to 5th Oct) we find out more about its revival and tasty uses
In Victorian times, celery specially grown in the Fens for the Christmas market (available from mid-November to New Year’s Day, depending on the weather) was extremely popular. It started out as an artisan product, when the celery travelled straight from the fields to Shippea Hill station near Ely where it was sent to London by rail. Once there, the cold, dry and frost-proof conditions of the railway arches in the markets were considered to be the perfect storing environment.
Fenland celery is a heritage celery variety and in keeping with tradition, farmer Gareth grows his crop on farmland that includes the fields where the Fenlander seed variety – one of the main varieties used to produce Fenland celery – was originally developed in the 1940s by a farmer named Mr Stanley Hopkins. In addition, Hopkins’ former manager was on hand to help pass on his first-hand knowledge of Fenland celery and advise Gareth and his team on the traditional growing techniques required when they first revived the crop 12 years ago. Fenland celery has recently been given Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status under the European Protected Food Names Scheme, making it the first English vegetable to be given a PGI status.
Gareth explains: 'Fenland celery is grown in wide rows with deep trenches which allows the soil to be banked up around the celery as it grows. This ‘earthing up’ process keeps the celery warm and protected from frost as it battles to grow through the winter months. It also blanches it, giving the sticks a paler colour, hence the reason it is also known as ‘white’ celery.'
One of the benefits of traditional ‘wide row’ growing is that more of the root – an exceptionally flavoursome section of the plant that can often go to waste – is harvested (close row celery is cut off at soil level). The main variety of Fenland Celery grown is Dwarf White, which was developed in the Fens over 100 years ago. The shorter stems give you more leaf, which can be used for extra flavour in stocks, soups and stews.
'Harvesting Fenland celery is a complex operation as the banked earth first has to be loosened by a special machine,' explains Gareth. 'Following this, the celery is harvested by hand using a specially shaped knife which means the celery can be carefully cut to retain plenty of the tasty root.'
Fenland celery is delicious added to soups, stews and casseroles but can also hold its own as an ingredient in its own right. 'The sweetness of the celery lends itself perfectly to a caramelised tarte tatin,' says Gareth, 'but you can’t beat simply dunking it into a pot of hummus and tucking in!'
For more information on Fenland Celery visit www.fenlandcelery.co.uk