Quality award from Europe for Fenland Celery

Gareth McCambridge, PGI Celery

Gareth McCambridge, PGI Celery - Credit: Submitted

Specialist grower Gareth McCambridge developed the celery variety just awarded special status by Europe.

He is one of the team at G's Fresh producing Fenland Celery which has been given PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status – East Anglia's first food crop and the first in Cambridgshire.

Mr McCambridge, of Barway Farms, Ely, who ran the East Coast Growers arm at Martham, Great Yarmouth, specialises in lettuce. He started growing celery more than 10 years ago. Brought up on the family's dairy farm, he grows lettuce, baby gem, organic salads and Fenland Celery.

It is the latest of about 1,200 products in Europe to be granted PGI status – the 55th in Britain alongside Melton Mowbray Pork Pies, and Stilton cheese.

Mr McCambridge, said: 'We grow our Fenland celery in deep peaty fen soil only found in small pockets in Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk. Known as Adventurers 1 & 2, this peaty soil type is naturally very fertile and full of nutrients, thanks to the decomposed plant remains that have accumulated over the hundreds of years while the fens were under water. This lovely rich soil not only gives Fenland celery its unique flavour.

'And it's this process: immersing most of the celery in the rich Fenland soil as it grows, that gives the celery all the vital nutrients it needs to grow well, as well as a less stringy texture,' he added.

The crop, which is harvested by hand, is grown on land that includes the fields where the Fenlander seed variety - one of the main varieties used to produce Fenland celery - was originally developed in the 1940s by a farmer named Stanley Hopkins.

Most Read

Mr Hopkins' former manager was on hand to pass on his first-hand knowledge of Fenland celery and advise Mr McCambridge and his team on the traditional growing techniques when they first revived the crop 12 years ago.

He explained: 'Fenland celery is grown in wide rows with deep trenches which allows the soil to be banked up around the celery as it grows. This 'earthing up' process keeps the celery warm and protected from frost as it battles to grow through the winter months.

'It also blanches it giving the sticks a paler colour, hence the reason it is also known as 'white' celery,' he added.

Once grown in Victorian times and harvested between October and January, it has been revived by 's Fresh which has grown celery in the Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire for more 50 years.

This method fell out of favour due to lower crop yields. Mr McCambridge said: 'Conventional 'close row' celery will yield around 70,000 sticks, or celery plants, per ha, whereas the traditional 'wide row' method gives only about 25,000 sticks per ha.

'However given the increasing consumer demand for products with provenance and flavour and the growing interest in reviving traditional food varieties and production methods, we felt it was the right time to revive this quality heritage product.'

The wide row crop has more root – the exceptionally flavoursome section of the plant which is sometimes lost in the mechanical harvesting process.

'Harvesting Fenland celery is a complex operation as the banked earth first has to be loosened by a special machine. Following this, the celery is harvested by hand using a specially shaped knife which means the celery can be carefully cut to retain plenty of the tasty root.'

'The sweetness of the celery lends itself perfectly to a caramelised tarte tatin but you can't beat simply dunking it into a pot of hummus and tucking in!'

It was Guy Shropshire, who started washing celery for Marks & Spencers after the second world war because shoppers no longer wanted to have 'dirty' produce.

Under the European Protected Food Names Scheme, Fenland Celery has become the first English vegetable to be given a PGI status. The main variety, Dwarf White, was developed in the Fens over 100 years ago.

It is available, exclusively, from Marks & Spencer and Waitrose.

For more information on Fenland Celery visit www.fenlandcelery.co.uk