Phyllis Roddy, my paternal grandma, a good and gentle woman we miss greatly, had much to do with my liking for celery. For amongst the sandwiches, sharp cheese, pickled vegetables, fruit cakes and sweet tarts there would always be English celery when Phyllis made Tea. Tea the meal that is, the one served at 5 30 on special days in lieu of supper. Yorkshire tea: stout, sterling and straightforward and not to be mistaken for the posher, vainer and highly creamed afternoon tea.
The icy-white, deeply ribbed stalks with soft feathery leaves would stand in a jug of very cold water – Phyllis knew this was the best way to keep them crisp and perky. In turn, the jug would stand in the middle of the rigorously starched linen cloth covering the dining table in my grandparents house in Cleveland Avenue. How can you not like celery? I might have thought, as I snapped yet another stalk between my teeth: cool, crisp and savory, the perfect foil for the soft sandwiches, rudely-pink beetroot, crumbling Cheshire cheese and dark sticky fruit cake.
Started by Phyllis and then nurtured by my mum – who never condemned celery with must or good for you and had the extraordinary knack of making a celery baton nearly as appealing as a biscuit – my liking for stringy stalks withstood the sneers of my peers and earned me favour with other mothers. I was after all, the only child eating the token vegetable batons at the Birthday tea. A tasty and smart move I might have thought as I accepted another slice of cake or inhaled an entire bowl of iced gems while the mother of the birthday child told my mother what a good eater I was.
I’m writing this from my parents house in the suffocating provincial town near – but not near enough – to London. I’ve been eating, drinking and doing plenty of post-prandial flicking through my Mum’s cook books while sprawled inelegantly on the nearest soft furnishing while my son plays with inappropriate and slightly dangerous objects. A few days ago I read this in Jane Grigson’s Good Things. “Put on the table two or three heads of celery, outside stalks removed, and the inner stalks separated, washed and chilled. Have a dish of unsalted butter at spreading temperature, and some sea salt. Each person puts butter fairly thickly into the channel of his celery sticks, then sprinkles a thin line of seas salt along it. Simple and delicious. Avoid embellishments. A good way to start a meal.”
I need little convincing to either eat celery – I’m talking about the good stuff here, commonplace but juicy and flavoursome – or to’ put butter fairly thickly‘ on anything. I am also completely enamoured with Jane Grigson so before you can say celery, butter and sea salt they were on the table.
Now it may sound odd to the uninitiated but I assure you celery, butter and salt is delicious. Really, truly delicious: the celery crisp, savory and just a little bitter contrasting brilliantly with the soft fattiness of the butter and shards of granular salt. It goes without saying the celery must be good, the unsalted butter excellent and the salt best quality, unadulterated and reeking of the sea. Maldon is ideal. Don’t be shy with the butter, imagine you are plastering a particularly deep hole in a particularly important wall. As with life, avoid embellishments.
As for those outer stems! We made Jane Grigson’s celery soup from Good Things, a simple soup that tastes – as she promises – exceptionally good. Standard practice here, onion and chopped celery sautéed in plenty of butter and a dash of olive oil. You add chopped potato for body and a litre of chicken stock before leaving the soup to simmer gently for about 30 minutes. To finish you blast the soup with the immersion blender before adding a little heavy cream and freshly grated black pepper.
Simple, savory and tasting as it should, most resolutely of celery. It felt like the perfect antidote the glorious excess of the past weeks but didn’t for a second feel anything but generous and good.
Adapted from Jane Grigson’s Good Things
- 75 g / 3 oz butter
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 250g / 10 oz chopped celery
- 100 g / 4 oz diced onion
- 100 g / 4 oz diced potato
- 1 litre /2 pints of light chicken/ turkey or ham stock
- black pepper
- heavy or double cream
Stew the celery and onion gently in the butter and oil in a covered pan for 10 minutes. Add the potato and stir to coat well with butter and oil. Don’ let the vegetables brown. Add the stock. Bring the soup to the boil and then reduce to a gentle simmer for 30 minutes or until the celery is very tender. Blend or pass the soup through a mouli. If the celery is particulary stringy you might like to pass it through a seive. Taste and add salt and freshly ground black pepper as you see fit. Ladle the soup into warm bowls, spoon over a little double cream, swirl and eat.
Happy New Year and wishing you all ‘Good things.’ Thank you for reading and thank you for your thoughtful, affectionate, funny, wise, frivolous, critical and honest comments. Rach