PGI Fenland Celery (Apium graveolens) is the name given to celery which has been planted, grown and harvested using traditional methods on the Adventurers 1 and 2 type deep peat soils in specific parts of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk.
The method by which ‘Fenland Celery’ is grown, and the varieties that are used, result in a product with notable characteristics, these are:
Appearance — ‘Fenland Celery’ has a wide butt which ranges from 8-12 cm in diameter, and splayed sticks (or petioles). It is deeper in shape with a pronounced root. ‘Fenland Celery’ grows between 60 cm and 80 cm in length from the butt to top of the leaves. The colour of the butt ranges from lime white to lime green. The base of the stick is always the whitest part, moving up to lighter green stick and gradually into light green leaves. ‘Fenland Celery’ appears robust, knobbly and with pronounced veins.
Texture — ‘Fenland Celery’ has a slightly more brittle yet more tender, crisper and crunchier texture that its modern day counterparts.
Taste — ‘Fenland Celery’ possesses a deep evenly balanced sweet/salty/bitter flavour. This is paired with a characteristic refreshing delicate nuttiness, and subtle aromatic conifer fragrances and mild aniseed notes.
‘Fenland Celery’ is planted in June or July and harvested between September and December.
The only varieties that can be used to produce ‘Fenland Celery’ are Hopkins Fenlander, New Dwarf White, Ely White. These three varieties are the only ones used due to their good yields, taste, resistance to disease and adaptability to the soil type.
Between April and May, the ‘Fenland Celery’ variety seeds are bought and delivered to an approved plant raiser for germination. At the plant raiser, they are sown into peat blocks and moved to the germination room where they will remain for seven days at 18 °C. They are then moved to the main greenhouse where they remain for approximately three weeks until they are young seedlings (about 4 inches high) and are ready for planting. They are then transported to the field containing the specific Adventurers 1 and 2 type soil where they are transplanted into the ground, into Adventurers 1 and 2 type deep peat soil within 24 hours. The transplanting of the small plants takes place between June and July — this allows for staggered crop and reduced risk of crop failure.
Harvesting ‘Fenland Celery’ takes place between September and December and is a complex operation whereby the banked earth is first loosened by a specialised wide row tractor and hoe mechanism, though it can be done by hand with a spade. The celery is harvested by hand using a knife. The roots may be trimmed completely or left with a small amount known as ‘Pencil-pointed’ celery.
‘Fenland Celery’ must be grown on Adventurers 1 and 2 soil series that is defined by the Soil Survey of England and Wales. This soil type is found specifically in the following parishes of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk:
Cambridgeshire: Littleport, Ely St Mary and Trinity, Ely Trinity (Detached), Thetford, Stretham, Willingham, Haddenham, Sutton, Colne, Coveney, Chatteris, Welches Dam, Manea, Wimblington, March, Thorney, Wisbech St Mary, Waterbeach, Horningsea, Bottisham, Swaffham Bulbeck, Swaffham Prior, Wicken, Burwell, Soham, Fordham, Isleham, Chippenham, Snailwell, Ramsey;
Norfolk: Leziate, East Winch, Bawsey, Middleton, Wimbotsham, Crimplesham, West Dereham, Wereham, Wretton, Stoke Ferry, Northwold, Ryston, Downham Market, Denver, Fordham, Nordelph, Welney, Feltwell, Hockwold-cum-Wilton, Redmere, Wormegay, East Winch, Leziate, Roydon;
Suffolk: Lakenheath, Mildenhall, Barton Mills, Worlington, Freckenham.
The specific characteristics and quality of the geographical area — namely the peat soil and climate — allow for the production of a specific celery. The consistency of the soil allows trenching to take place which results in a specific celery which is white in colour, crisper in texture and having a distinctly refreshing delicate nutty taste.
The combination of soil, varieties and production method that are used only in the Fenlands have provided the area with the reputation of producing the highest quality, best tasting celery. The Fenlands are a naturally marshy region in eastern England of which the majority, up until 16th century, was underwater. The land first started being drained during the 1630s. It was during this time, that two cuts were made in the Cambridgeshire Fens to join the River Great Ouse to the sea at King's Lynn — the Old Bedford River and the New Bedford River. However, once drained of water, the peat shrank, and the fields lowered further, until the land was again under water by the end of the 17th century.
After several attempts on draining the area, final success came in the 1820s with the introduction of coal-powered steam engines. The Fenlands were drained by 286 small electrical pumping stations, 3 800 miles of watercourses, 60 miles of sea embanked defences and 96 miles of fluvial river embankments. Consequently, in most places the Fenland lies no more than 10 m above sea level. Many parts now lie below mean sea level.
With the support of the drainage system, the Fenland, which borders Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, became a major arable agricultural region in Britain for grains and vegetables. The environmental and geographic advantages both now and in the past have provided the perfect soil — namely the Adventurers 1 and 2 deep peat type — and climate conditions in which to grow ‘Fenland Celery’.
The Fenland region has a lower rainfall average than other key arable areas in the United Kingdom (365 mm last year — Weather Commerce Ltd). Low rainfall is an important factor in the production of ‘Fenland Celery’ because excess rain would impede growth by damaging the soil trenches and encourage disease.
Adventurers 1 and 2 soil type native to the geographical area benefit the celery in two ways: firstly, due to its naturally fertile composition, it will provide the plant with many of the nutrients it needs. Secondly, its consistency means that it can be banked up around the plant protecting it from the sun, which ensures that the skin of the celery remains white, protecting it from the frost towards the end of the year which enables farmers to extend the British season and achieve a higher price at the local markets.
The traditional method of production is not only a land-intensive way to grow this vegetable, but is also more labour-intensive. The techniques have been passed down through generations of Fenland farmers for over 50 years and require skill. Growers must ensure sufficient protection against frost without smothering the plant and making the growing conditions too warm (which would result in disease and rot).
The standard plant population of ‘Fenland Celery’ is considerably reduced with 50 % less plants per hectare compared to a conventional celery crop (modern farming sees 50 K plants/ha, ‘Fenland Celery’ — 25 K plants/ha). Lower planting intensity is due to the need to plant in wide rows.
The method used to grow ‘Fenland Celery’ dictates that the plants are grown in wide rows separated with deep trenches. These wide rows are essential to the overall quality of the final product due to the need to bank up the soil, which acts to retain the white colour of the celery. This method is compulsory to the production of ‘Fenland Celery’ and without it the product could not be classed as ‘Fenland Celery’.
‘Fenland Celery’ is smaller in size compared to conventionally produced celery as a result of the production method and variety used. This traditional production method, coupled with the ‘Fenland Celery’ seed varieties and the black peat Adventurers 1 and 2 soil types all contribute to its distinctive nutty, sweet, aniseed flavour and its light green to white colouring which are key characteristics of ‘Fenland Celery’.
‘Fenland Celery’ is characterised by a wider butt and more splayed sticks (or petioles). The butt ranges from 8-12 cm in diameter, and is deeper in shape and often less uniform that its counterparts. ‘Fenland Celery’ will often appear with a more pronounced root due to its growing and harvesting techniques. It also grows notoriously slowly due to the time of the year and production technique used as compared to other more commercial celery. This slowing growing product contributes to its distinctive nutty and bitter/sweet flavour and its more tender, crisper and crunchier texture.