It's difficult for someone like me who adores celery: crisp, flavoursome and picked fresh from the garden, to acknowledge that there are others in the universe who don't much care for it. This week, I was particularly distressed to hear from a friend that when she requires a few celery leaves to flavour some cooking (a soup or casserole, for instance) she buys a bunch and then actually ends up throwing away the stalks! "No one in the house eats the stuff," she told me. (She really did use the word 'stuff', almost wincing as she said it). "It just sits in the fridge until it dries up and someone has the courage to forget the $5 it cost, and biffs it out."
I was about gasp when she suddenly redeemed herself by announcing she'd found a simple solution to ditching a full head of celery. "Alexanders," she said. "That's what I've started growing."
I'm not often stumped when it comes to plant names but I had to dash to the internet to find out about this one. A herb with the botanical name Smyrnium olusatrum, Alexanders is also known as 'black lovage' (although it's not related to lovage at all). It goes way back (centuries in fact) and the lovely, romantic thing about it is that it was cultivated by nuns in the 16th century so, in Europe, it can still be found growing wild amongst the ruins of old monasteries. Alexanders fell out of favour in the 19th century after the development of modern forms of celery but if it's just the leaves you're looking for to flavour a dish (its stems are nothing to write home about) then it's well worth growing. Salt tolerant, it thrives near the coast so I may track down some seed, just for curiosity.
My friend said she was also trying to source another herb that delivered celery flavour, and this one I had heard of (it seeded so freely in my own garden that I decided to oust it). The herb is par-cel (short for celery-parsley) also known as cutting celery, curled celery, or leaf celery. It's grown for its flavoursome leaves, its stems being similar to parsley. It's a compact plant with finely cut glossy leaves and as well as bringing celery flavours to dishes, is every bit as good as parsley as a garnish. If you live in very cold climes, it can be picked before winter and dried ready for crumbling into soups or over a cheese-topped pies. Although par-cel is a bit of a headache if left to go to seed, it can be easily controlled by chopping off seed-heads before they ripen or confining the plants to a large pot.
My friend left, extolling the virtues of Alexanders and par-cel but although I'm very pleased she won't be biffing out perfectly good vegetables in the future, I'm still addicted to crunching a fat stick of the real thing.