When we speak of celery in the United States, we are generally thinking of those thick, juicy, crisp-but-stringy stalks with a flourish of leaves on the top. While that’s the most common form of celery here, it is not the only variety.
Chinese celery, also known as smallage, par-cel, and cutting celery, is closer in form to wild celery. It has skinny, hollow stalks, a much stronger flavor, and is almost never eaten raw, but is rather used to add flavor to cooked dishes. The Italians differentiate between cooking celery and eating celery, the eating variety being the one we know best, and the cooking variety actually just being the skinny, strong-flavored wild celery.
Then there is the homely but wonderful variety known as celeriac. Celeriac is not grown for its stalks, but rather for its large, gnarly, brown, turnip-like root. You may see it identified as celery root, which is not inaccurate, but it is not the root of the kind of celery you’re seeing on crudité platters.
Celery is a marshland plant that appears to have originated in the eastern end of the Mediterranean. It was cultivated and spreading long ago, and appeared in everything from India’s Ayurvedic medicine to Egyptian tombs.
Sacred in ancient Greece, it was worn by winners of the Nemean Games. When Homer wrote of it, he called it selinon, which appears to be the early source of the word celery, though our word came into English (as did so many words, thanks to the Norman Conquest) by way of France, where it was and is celeri.
The ancient Romans used it to decorate tombs and wove it into wreaths that were supposed to ward off hangovers. But they also ate it. While the Romans did develop cultivated celery (though, like modern Italians, they still used the wild for cooking), the techniques for cultivation seem to have vanished with the collapse of the empire. It was not until the Middle Ages that celery was again being cultivated, this time in France. However, celeriac was not developed until the Renaissance.
Popular in Eastern and Southern Europe, celeriac/celery root is not a commonly used vegetable in the US (though it is increasing in popularity). It can be a bit pricey at a regular grocery store, but it’s usually a good bit cheaper if you buy it at an ethnic store that features Eastern European foods, because the demand is greater, as is the turnover.
I think celeriac deserves to be popular. Boiled and puréed, it offers a gentle, silken, subtly celery-flavored, low-carb alternative to mashed potatoes. In soups, it contributes the flavor of celery without the strings, and with a lovely mouth-feel that is more velvety than cooked celery. I love it. And if you want a lovely recipe to try it in, come back in a few days, as my next post will be a recipe for a delightful soup from Poland.