Winter celery, white celery, dirty celery, Fenland celery – all names for one of Britain’s most prized crops; a sweet, tender type of heritage celery, grown in the rich, dark, peaty Fenlands of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. This seasonal winter delicacy, raised from heirloom seeds, was all but wiped out in recent years by modern varieties that could be grown densely packed into fields and harvested by machine. As with so many supermarket vegetables, texture and taste lost out to higher yields, uniform shape and durability in transport.
Traditionally, celery is grown in a similar fashion to Yorkshire forced rhubarb, another British artisan crop, with the sun kept off the stalks so they stay pale and tender. Where rhubarb spends months in pitch black sheds and is, romantically, harvested by candlelight, Fenland celery has earth piled high around it. In both cases the result is sweeter, more delicate stalks, with a beautiful colour and fantastic crunch.
Where modern celery sits in the ground for only two to three months (if it isn’t grown hydroponically), Fenland celery takes nearly five months to mature – with all the sunshine and rainfall that comes with it, absorbing nutrition from the highly fertile earth. Once an oak forest, then a bog, before becoming flooded and rotting down, the moist, black soils of the Fens are incredibly rich in organic matter – up to fifteen times more than other arable land.