Jamie Oliver calls it ‘the most underrated vegetable in the whole of the United Kingdom’. Others call it an unsung hero and the frog prince of vegetables. In 1960 Elizabeth David said it was ‘on the way up’.
I’m talking about celeriac, also known as knob celery or turnip-rooted celery. Its Latin moniker is Apium graveolens var. rapaceum.
Celery has a long history, celeriac a shorter one. Homer mentions the former in the Odyssey. This description of Calypso’s cave is from Emily Wilson’s lean and luminous 2017 translation. (Wilson is the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English—shocking but true.)
‘A ripe and luscious vine, hung thick with grapes,
was stretched to coil around her cave. Four springs
spurted with sparkling water as they laced
with crisscross currents intertwined together.
The meadow softly bloomed with celery
and violets. He gazed around in wonder
and joy, at sights to please even a god.’
For a long time celery root and upright celery were one and the same. The idea of developing a variety with really large roots arose in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and today celery and celeriac aren’t grown from the same plant.
A popular ingredient in northern and central Europe. Not so much in the English-speaking world. Which is a pity. Yes, it’s a scruffy beast of a vegetable. Yes, it goes brown in a heartbeat unless you immediately plunge it into cold, acidulated water. But celeriac is full of character and let’s face it, looks aren’t everything. Pare off its gnarled, whiskery exterior and uncover the ivory-fleshed deliciousness within.
It was fennel that turned me on to cooking with celeriac. I dislike fennel so when a recipe asked for it, I used celeriac instead. (Celeriac and fennel are both members of the Apiaceae or carrot family.)
Celeriac is mellow and walnutty and earthy. Like stalk celery you can eat it raw, but it softens beautifully, and I prefer it cooked. It’s a great mixer too. I add celeriac to winter soups. I roast chunks of it brushed with olive oil and harissa and serve it with cannellini or butter beans and baked red capsicum. And it forms the basis of root vegetable stews and gratins. Slice thinly with carrots, parsnips, a generous layer of potatoes and spike with black pepper, garlic, nutmeg or thyme.
Two varieties of Apium prostratum, known as wild celery or sea celery (and in some historical texts as smallage) are native to coastal Australia and New Zealand. Commonly eaten by Māori for whom it’s known as Tutae Koau, wild celery was also a survival food for explorers and early colonists. Captain Cook ate wild celery at Botany Bay and gathered boatloads of it at Poverty Bay (NZ). In 1770 Joseph Banks noted: ‘We indeed as people who had been long at sea found great benefit in the article of health by eating plentifully of wild Celery, and a kind of Cresses which grew every where abundantly near the sea side.’
The plant looks like a miniature form of regular celery and tastes much the same. Leaves and stems are both edible and dried leaves are sometimes used in spice mixes.