The first food history story on this blog was on October 31, 2005. The topic was celery. In that post we learned from John Evelyn, the enthusiastic gardener and author of Acetaria: a discourse on sallets (1699) that ‘sellery’ was at that time newly introduced from Italy.
Since that day, I have posted more than eighteen hundred stories, and although many of the recipes in those stories have included celery, I don’t think it has been the star in a single post. Sadly, it also rarely stars on the dinner table. It is a useful vegetable, certainly. It travels and keeps well. It is crisp and green in salads, and the salad-unworthy fragments are a fine addition to soups and stews. It almost always appears in some sort of mélange, however. How long since you had celery as a side-dish in a restaurant?
My musings on celery were prompted by a book called How to Cultivate and Preserve Celery, (Albany, 1860) by Theophilus Roessle. At the beginning of the book is a lovely colour plate – of pink celery. The sort of celery that could be rhubarb, if you don’t look too closely at the leaves. What a gorgeous thing, I thought. And why have I never seen it at the farmers’ markets?
I gather from the author’s words that pink or red celery was not rare in the mid-nineteenth century. He begins his chapter on ‘Varieties’ with the following summary.
“After an experience of many years, with a great number of varieties of celery, I have narrowed my list to the following few kinds which I recommend as most profitable for general cultivation:
No. 1. Early White Solid.
No. 2. Joint do.
No. 3. New Silver Leaf.
No. 4. Red Solid, or Rose-colored.
No. 5. Celeriac or Turnip-rooted.
The varieties 1, 2, and 4 are best.”
It appears then, that in the second half of the nineteenth century that pink/red celery was a profitable variety, not a frivolous experiment. A little further reading indicated that there were many pink/red varieties in Britain and Europe at this time. What happened to them? Did they become less profitable because better green varieties were developed? And what would constitute ‘better’ celery anyway? Another question: did rose-pink celery taste different? A final question: are any heritage vegetable enthusiasts growing this celery today?
For a long, long time, when celery was a new vegetable, it was served alone. It was served raw and pure, en branche, at the end of the meal with the nuts and cheese. When eventually it became commonly cooked, its most usual role was in sauce. Celery Sauce must have become unfashionable at some point in time, for I don’t remember seeing it on a restaurant menu, ever. How good would this be with pink celery? Don’t tell me it loses its colour on cooking, please.
You must have a fine head of celery. Wash it and carefully clear off any defective parts, and the coarser green ends. Cut the white part into small evenly-sized pieces, and boil very gently until quite tender in a little water. Then rub a little butter in flour, and thicken your sauce, seasoning it with pepper and salt, a very little pounded mace and nutmeg, and boil it up. You should then add about a cupful of cream if possible, and mix it well before serving.
Tib’s Tit-Bits, (London, 1869) ed. by Frances Freeling Broderip
Quotation for the Day.
Many kids can tell you about drugs but do not know what celery or courgettes taste like.