Celebrating Fenland celery

Fenland celery
Fenland celery
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Celery may not be top of everyone’s Christmas food shopping list, but a Country Landowners’ Association member in the Fens is working hard to ensure that it becomes a staple part of our festive menus.

It has been described as the ‘caviar of celery’ and lauded as a premium product, but Fenland Celery has not been seen as an integral part of the seasonal celebrations since Victorian times.

Back then it was specially grown in the area for the Christmas market, when it was available from mid-November to New Year’s Day, depending on the weather. It was an artisan product specially grown for the London markets, with the celery travelling 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.

From a bygone era to the present day, and luminaries such as TV chef Delia Smith are bringing this heritage celery to the fore again. She has described it “as English as the Stilton cheese” and said that it has exceptional flavour “particularly after a light frost, when it’s sweetest of all”.

CLA members G’s Fresh have revived it in the Fens. The company was started by Guy Shropshire who started farming in the 1950s, and began growing celery on just three acres of land. Fast forward to the present day, and G’s Fresh is a large, multi-national company with contracts with UK retail heavyweights such as Marks & Spencer.

But what makes Fenland Celery so different?

In terms of colour, it is paler in colour due to the cultivation method that prevents the sun touching the stems and turning them green, earning it the nickname of ‘winter white celery’. It has a unique nutty-sweet flavour because it is grown in the deep peaty soils and was traditionally only grown in small pockets in Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk. The growing method allows more of the root to be kept, which has exceptional flavour and is traditionally trimmed to a pencil point.

The main variety of Fenland Celery, Dwarf White, was developed in the fens more than 100 years ago. It has a shorter stem and more leaf, which adds flavours in stock, soups and stews. It is harvested by hand using a specially shaped knife.

It is these unique selling points that have seen Fenland Celery awarded Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status from the European Commission under the European Protected Food Names (PFN) scheme. The announcement follows a three-year application process and means the heritage celery variety now joins the ranks of Parma ham, Champagne and Melton Mowbray Pork Pies, which already enjoy protected status under similar schemes.

In terms of what this means for Fenland Celery and the area, it has been estimated that Melton Mowbray Pork Pies and Stilton cheese alone provide an estimated £65m boost to sales and tourism in the Melton area of Leicestershire.

Anthony Gardiner, marketing director of G’s Fresh, who have revived it and been growing celery in the Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire for 50 years, said: “We brought Fenland Celery back into commercial production in 2000, but it’s been difficult to convey to shoppers what makes it such a premium product.

“We hope that gaining PGI status will raise the profile of this heritage variety and draw attention both to what makes it so different and the special way it’s grown. There’s no doubt Fenland Celery will always be a niche product. It is an extremely labour intensive crop with low yields because of the traditional way it’s farmed.

“It is harvested by hand using a specially shaped knife – it is a complex operation as the banked earth first has to be loosened by a special machine, and then the celery is carefully cut to retain plenty of the root.”

Picture suppiled: By Rob Wicks at Eat Pictures