Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Pink Celery?

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.

Celery Sauce.
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.
Jamie Oliver.


leslie land said...

Red (or pink) celery is still around and still being grown. Most commonly available seed is for a variety called Redventure, developed in the early 1990s as a cross between an heirloom red celery and a popular green variety - name now forgotten by me - that is more tender and less strong flavored.

Could be it's not much in evidence because there isn't much heirloom/artisanal/etc. celery of any sort in evidence, outside of the kinds best suited for cooking or use as flavoring. Crisp, non-stringy, mild-flavored celery is very difficult to grow without factory farm style inputs

David Feder said...

Very likely it will lose the colour in cooking b/c the colour most certainly comes from anthocyanins, which are volatiel and easily broken down by heat. Same way purple carrots, purple cauliflower and purple okra lose most of their colour in cooking.
But I would LOVE to see some red/pink celery! Post whatever you find out.
PS: In recent days, there have been posts on purple hot pepeprs and purple tomatillos. I am growing some of the latter right now, thanks to seeds from a good friend in Europe.

David Feder said...

Most likely the colour will go away when cooked as it most certainly comes from anthocyanins, which are quite volatile and unstable in heat. Purple carrots, cauliflower and okra lose most of their color when cooked. I've seen posted lately items on lavender hot chili peppers and lavender tomatillos, the latter which I am growing. Do please keep us in the loop and let us know if you find a source for growing red celery.
David F., Chicago

The Old Foodie said...

Interesting, Leslie - I am glad it is still being grown. But why is it not more popular - is it tht it is more stringy or something? I would have thought that growers could produce a tender yet crisp, non- stringy celery?

The Old Foodie said...

Hello David. I am getting a few emails about this celery so I will post a follow-up when I have some more information. I have seen purple chillis here (in Queensland, Australia)

Anne said...

Than you for profiling the humble celery, Janet. I think this plant is highly underrated. I save all the leaves from our home-grown celery and dry them in the oven then crumble them to add to soups and stews. Celery seed can be collected from plants that bolt and it makes a delicious tea. I also grow a plant called Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum), that is claimed to be a precursor to Celery and named after Alexander the Great. It is extremely hardy, has lovely glossy leaves and the long slender stems have a very strong celery flavour. All parts of the plant are edible. The big black seeds taste of lovage and can be chewed or added to herbal teas. The strong flavour of Alexanders would probably put some people off eating it but the plant can be blanched to reduce the bitterness. So many plants, as well as foods, have fallen by the wayside in our modern diet that it’s good to be able to resurrect a few at times.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Anne. I agree, it is an under-rated vegetable. I have a post planned for 'Alexanders', so keep your eye out! I agree that it is sad that we have sacrificed diversity in order to grow plants that pack and store well - or whatever the myriad reasons are that we have 'lost' these foods.

Elise Fleming/Alys K. said...

The chef at the retirement community where I live often includes "braised celery" as a side dish.

Anonymous said...

I just found a reference to pink and red celery in "The Canadian Horticulturist" of 1885, and had to look it up myself to see whether they were referring to rhubarb or not. Might have to see if I can source some seeds and give it a try for myself!

The Old Foodie said...

Hello E-admin. If you do try it, please let us all know what it is like!

aruvqan said...


I ordered a packet and will have a go at growing them this season.

The Old Foodie said...

Let us know how the celery turns out, aruvqan, please!