The Comforts of Celery

Saint Celery’s is here! This esoteric festival, reported on these pages in May 2011,has arrived later than usual this year. In April, the first five pale leaflets – little hands of the Devil’s Vegetable – groped out from the trays of Hawkwood’s home recipe seed mix. Through the season, the leer of the celery beds grew greener and fuller across the Entrance Field, and now we cut them, and tickle them around East London, arousing passion and suspicion wherever they go.

We left it late this year, hoping, after the slow start, for a last ditch stalk-swell. As is so often the case, what we’ve gained in size we’ve lost in good looks, as leaf spot, leaf miner and bare old age come to discolour the leaf. Yet the ribs stand firm. Unlike other plantings, we never worried for this bogside vegetable in the months of waterlogging. So much at home is it on our heavy drop of reclaimed marshland, it has attained a totemic status here at Hawkwood, where for a period a year – this one – it eclipses the basil as the overpowering Flavour of the Month.

Paricluarly flavoursome in soups and stocks, I have been enjoying it in combination with potatoes this last fortnight. More Poignantly perhaps, as this year the stores of humble spud will not outlast the stands of green celery as long as we are accustomed to.

Our first early spuds barley cropped, and our maincrop, the fantastically flavoured “Arran Victory”, yielded a marketable, storeable yield of a mere 5 kilo, after the slim pickings had slug and wireworm damaged tubers graded out into the “Team Veg” shelf for Hawkwood workers. In a good year we would have expected to bring in that amount hundredfold, enough to stock the farm stall into spring . We are not an isolated case. This year, the wet early summer has meant the majority of UK potato seed either weren’t planted at all, rotted in the ground, were devoured by slugs, or suffered the blight. Our rural partners, Hughes Organics, are issuing dire warning s of potato shortages.

The supermarkets will, as ever, trample on whoever, wherever, to ensure continuity. For community food systems like ours, the lack of our perennially totemic staple will provide a sore test of creativity and resilience. Hannah, OrganicLea’s new Produce Coordinator, is already facing up to this challenge, working out where we might stockpile, and where we can confidently endorse palatable substitutes – anything from pumpkins, to swede, to turnips, to parsnips, to artichokes, to occa, all depending on the recipe – for box scheme members substitution.

Somehow we’ll get by. Our greedy business leaders might leave us to rot, but they daren’t let us starve: that’s for export. Even in the darkest times, there will always be the next seasonal saviour to come through and enliven, enrich, nourish our meals: that, after all, is what vegetables do. There will be salsify, sprouts, beetroot, leeks, winter squash in 57 varieties. Let us eat kale. And for now, praises be to St. Celery.

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