Though we usually spell the name of this now ubiquitous vegetable as "celery" today, during the Regency, it was just as often spelled "celeri" due to its supposed French and Italian origins. Because it was so difficult and labor-intensive to cultivate, it was indeed a delicacy, to be found only on the dining tables of the most wealthy, who generally grew it in their own gardens. The gardeners who grew celery gave it special care to produce a version of the vegetable seldom seen today. Casanova swore by it and would not venture upon a new conquest without partaking of it. Remarkably, modern-day medical research has borne him out. How our Regency ancestors cultivated and consumed celery . . .
Celery is actually part of the family of plants which includes parsley, carrots, parsnips, fennel, dill, coriander and caraway. The first part of its Latin name, Apium graveolens, comes from the Latin, apis, meaning "bee." It seems that bees found the tiny white celery flowers quite irresistible. Celery probably originated in the Mediterranean area and parts of Asia, but wild celery was growing in marshlands across England before the arrival of the Romans. By the early Middle Ages, this wild plant, with its bitter leaves and seeds, was commonly known in England as "ache," pronounced "ash." It was used solely for medicinal purposes, to "provoke urine," remove stone and gravel or obstructions of the liver or spleen, and to treat lumbago, dropsy and jaundice. The term "ache" was also applied to other plants in the parsley family, so gradually, wild celery was distinguished by the term "small ache," which was soon contracted and corrupted to "smallage."
Linguistic scholars believe that there is also a Latin source for the term "celeri," based on the plant’s medical reputation. In this case, the Latin root is celer, meaning fast or swift, because medical preparations made from this plant tended to bring about fairly quick results. In the seventeenth century, the Italians, and later, the French, used the term celeri for an edible version of Apium graveolens which they were cultivating. This new version of the plant had thick, succulent stalks, which, when blanched, were almost sweet in taste. Therefore, it was given the Latin designation of Apium graveolens var. dulce because is was so much less bitter than was wild celery. Existing records suggest that edible celeri arrived in England from France near the turn of the eighteenth century. About the new vegetable, one early plant historian, John Ray, wrote, "Smallage transferred to culture becomes milder and less ungrateful, whence in Italy and France the leaves and stalks are esteemed as delicacies, eaten with oil and pepper."
It was true that the "cultured," or cultivated variety of celery was "milder and less ungrateful" to the taste than was the very bitter native English smallage. However, it was much more difficult to grow and required a great deal of care and attention from the gardener to be brought successfully to table. Typically, the tiny celery seeds were sown in the spring, in pots or trays which were nurtured indoors, usually in a glasshouse (greenhouse). After ten to twelve weeks, the seedlings were then planted outdoors, about a foot apart, at the bottom of trenches which were usually dug to a depth of about eighteen inches. Celery plants have very shallow root systems and for that reason, cannot survive the encroachment of other plants in their early stages of growth. Therefore, the celery trenches had to be weeded regularly, daily in the early weeks of growth, then every few days as the plants matured. Growing celery plants needed to be kept moist, but not too moist or they would rot. Celery requires cool weather, about 55ºF or 15ºC, to thrive. In particular, cool nights are necessary for the plants to grow to full maturity. However, very cold weather can inhibit the growth of celery or even kill young plants, so celery trenches were placed in shaded areas out of direct sunlight.
Sunlight was also the enemy in the effort to produce the sweet, nearly white celery stalks which were considered a delicacy from the end of the eighteenth century through the Regency. In the early autumn, a few days before the celery plants were to be harvested, they had to be blanched, or earthed. In this process, a mound of dirt was carefully heaped around each celery plant, covering them in soil nearly to the top of the plant, just below the leaves. All of this had to be done by hand to ensure the delicate celery plants were not damaged. The earth mounds excluded sunlight, which would have stimulated the celery stalks to produce chlorophyll and thus turn green. It had been discovered in Italy and France that green celery stalks were somewhat bitter, but that blanching the plants to exclude sunlight in their final days of growth produced the pale, sweet stalks which were considered to be so delicious. The celery plants would be left in their trenches, covered nearly to their tops with earth for about ten days. If they were left any longer, they would go to seed and become inedible. After spending ten days under their mounds of earth, the blanched celery plants would have been carefully excavated, washed and stored in a cool, moist root cellar, where they would keep for several months. Those harvesting the celery plants would have had to carefully check each one to be sure it was free of a small red worm, a known pest, which might sometimes be found hiding within the stalks.
Due to the very labor-intensive nature of its cultivation, celery was grown mostly as a curiosity in England, until the last decades of the eighteenth century. It was only then, when new and unique foods were becoming fashionable and glasshouses had become more widespread, that "celeri" began to gain acceptance on the dinner tables of the English upper classes. However, celery could not be cultivated commercially at this time, so only those who had glasshouses (for which the glass tax must be paid), large kitchen gardens and ample staff could afford to plant enough celery for more than one or two meals. Large root cellars which could be kept cool and moist were also necessary, in order to store the harvested celery plants through the winter. Therefore, celeri soon became not only a delicacy, but a status symbol, to be found only on the tables of the wealthiest of the upper classes in England.
To prepare celery, the sweet white stalks were separated, washed and the upper green portions were removed. The green leaves and the green portions of the stalks were usually added to soups and stews, either fresh or dried. The white stalks were often stewed and served with a white sauce or an oil dressing. White sauce seems to have been more popular in England, while oil dressing was preferred in France and Italy. Another serving method, which became increasingly popular in the early decades of the nineteenth century, including the Regency, was that the most choice celery stalks were served raw. But instead of on plates, as celery is often served today, these sweet white celery stalks were served in a specially-made glass vessel, called a celery vase. These celery vases were footed, usually of cut or etched glass, stood between eight to ten inches high and tapered upward to a brim which was wider than the base. The cleaned celery stalks were placed in the celery vase, which was then filled with iced water to keep them cool and crisp while they were on the table. Celery seeds were often used as a flavoring in a number of dishes from soups to stews. Curiously, they also became a favorite for the center of comfits, the Regency form of breath mints.
The upper classes in England commonly called this vegetable delicacy celeri, using the French spelling. However, in the cookbooks published by women like Hannah Glasse and Elizabeth Raffald, who would have no truck with things French, they used what they considered to be the correct English spelling, celery. Therefore, the family cook might prepare stewed celery with white sauce, but by the time it got to the dining table, those who ate it were much more likely to call it celeri with white sauce. French chefs employed by the upper classes would also refer to it as celeri, as would any society hostess who planned to serve it at one of her dinner parties. The only difference in pronunciation which I have been able to discern is that with celeri, there is a slight roll to the r and the tone rises on the i. The word celery seems to have been pronounced in much the same way that we do today, with the exception of the difference between British English and that of her far-flung erstwhile colonies. Certainly during the Regency, the spelling and pronunciation of the name of this vegetable seems to have run along class lines.
Despite the fact that celery had become a delicacy by the Regency, both it and its wild cousin, smallage, still had a number of medicinal uses. A conserve of blanched celery was considered very efficacious in the treatment of chest pains and "windy colic." A decoction of wild or cultivated celery leaves made into a tea was a reliable diuretic which would also relieve "gravel" or stones. The roots and seeds of celery or smallage were used to treat fevers, jaundice and dropsy, as well as to purify the body. The much more bitter and powerful leaves and seeds of wild celery or smallage could be used to produce an essential oil known as apiol. In the correct dose, apiol could be consumed in order to trigger an abortion. However, it was poisonous and could lead to death if the dose was too high. Ironically, perhaps, a number of men during this period, including Casanova, considered celery an effective aphrodisiac. Madame de Pompadour, aware of celery’s special properties, regularly served her lover, Louis XV, celery soup. Recent scientific and medical studies give credence to this belief in its aphrodisiacal powers. Celery contains androsterone, a naturally occuring steroid which is, biochemically, a cousin of testosterone. Not only does it increase a man’s stamina, it is also released as a pheromone which is powerfully attractive to women. Casanova may not have known the science behind it, but he had often observed the effects his consumption of celery had when it came to his successful conquests. After a meal which included a generous helping of celery, he was not only more attractive to women, but he had the stamina to ensure they enjoyed the time they spent with him.
By the mid-nineteenth century, variations of celery had been bred which were much less bitter, thereby making blanching during cultivation unnecessary. Methods of planting and weeding had been developed which made it possible to cultivate celery on a commercial scale. Before the century came to a close, what had once been a rare delicacy on the tables of the wealthy began to appear on the dining tables of nearly every class. Celery vases were no longer hand-made, but were churned out in volume by machines. Celery had lost its cache as a status symbol and had become just another vegetable which filled a vase on the dining table or could be used for the making of salads, soups or stews. Very few people today have any idea of the status celery held on the Regency dining table.
Dear Regency Authors, how might you employ celery in one of your upcoming stories? Might the heroine, the daughter of a middle-class house, have grown a few celery plants in the family kitchen garden for a special meal? How might the scene play out if the hero and a particularly uppity relative happen to partake of that meal? Will cutting remarks be made about the family having ideas above their station? Could you imagine a brothel where the madam regularly serves celery to ensure her customers have a satisfying experience and thus keep them coming back for more? Does the villain know the secrets of smallage seeds and leaves well enough to make the necessary apiol oil to terminate the life of his mistress and not just her inconvenient pregnancy? Can the heroine save the day? And all this time, you thought celery was just a dull and boring vegetable, didn’t you?