Celery is a serious issue

22 March 2021

Celery, too, is a serious issue. They know it well in Trevi, where they cultivate a special kind: Black Celery, a variety native to this corner of Umbria, and a Slow Food Presidium.

There are only a few people who grow it, but its value is recognized locally, as it differs significantly to the celery we’re used to. As Michele Spellucci, President of the Producers’ Association, explains: “It’s peculiarity lies in the fact that it’s so big. It can grow up to 120cm long and weigh 3.5 kilos.”

But is the color really black? Not really. “We call it black because the seed, if left to grow wild, gives us a dark celery, especially inside,” he adds.

How is black celery grown?

Trevi Black Celery
Photo: Paolo Andrea Montanaro

On the market, however, the celery we see is generally white: “When our celery reaches 70cm long it’s tied up and wrapped in straw paper, or else buried, as was once the fashion. This way the celery avoids the sunlight and develops less chlorophyll. The more common celery, on the other hand, is self-whitening: meaning it doesn’t need this treatment.”

The reason why it’s left like this is not just a question of color, of course: “This procedure ensures that the celery has an incredible softness and sweetness. If it’s not grown like this, it develops a strong flavor, slightly spicy, which makes it practically useless in the kitchen.” This way, however, the characteristics of the product mean it lends itself to various uses: the heart is perfect in salads, the stems in soups, the leaves in pesto.

A little history

Trevi Black Celery
Photo: Paolo Andrea Montanaro

The first evidence for Trevi Black Celery goes back to the second half of the 19th century, though it was probably grown here even before then. As Michele puts it: “The area of production today is very restricted.” It’s little more than dozen hectares, a particularly fertile area created through various floods of the Clitunno river, whose source is just three kilometers from the city. “This area is called canapine, meaning that once upon a time it was used to grow canapa, hemp. When that industry stopped, the farmers returned to growing celery.”

The local tradition of black celery also has its own festival or sagra, which was first celebrated almost a hundred years ago, in 1924. Today it’s held every year in October, right after harvest. It’s a moment of celebration, where you can taste the typical recipe: the celery is boiled and stuffed with sausage, then breaded, fried and finally baked. “To prepare this dish, which is the king of October here in Trevi, takes a long time, but it’s really worth it!”

Resisting extinction

Trevi Black Celery
Photo: Paolo Andrea Montanaro

During the festival the producers also take part in a competition, comparing their vegetables: a panel of experts analyzes the best examples and gives a prize for the finest celery of the season. Michele recalls: “In the association there’s me, I’m 38 years old and I started growing celery three years ago, but there’s also two older farmers, they’re 85 years old. Only one of them has children who intend to continue the tradition of growing this celery, so the risk of extinction is real.”

In order to resist it, the group works on two fronts: “First of all we take care of the seeds, that is, we work to safeguard the purity of the variety, and avoid cross-breeding.” Naturally, there’s also an ongoing exchange of skills and knowledge among producers, too. “The objective is to ensure that it’s grown in the right way, respecting the protocol of the Presidium, guaranteeing to our customers that this is the real Trevi Black Celery.”

There’s also an another goal, as Michele concludes: to be free of the limits of the extreme seasonality of the celery. How? “Using a powdered form to make bread and biscuits, our using an extract in the production of beer. We’re trying to create a more varied economy around the crop.”

by Marco Gritti, m.gritti@slowfood.it