Thursday, 9 March 2017


“Dear Perenna, prithee come and with smallage dress my tomb: And a cypress sprig thereto, With a tear, and so Adieu.” – Robert Herrick 

Smallage (Apium graveolens var. graveolens) is the wild variety of celery, belonging to the carrot family (Apiaceae). Smallage is very leafy, with thin hollow stalks and can grow up to 1 metre tall. The stalks are very slender and pliable, although quite stringy and not used in cooking. The plant does look quite similar to parsley although the leaves are of different shape, their colour are a little lighter, and their stalks are somewhat thicker. It is a biennial plant, growing luxuriantly the first year, flowering and seeding the following year, then dying. It can be treated as a “cut-and-come-again” plant, with multiple harvests of leaves. One French name, “celeri à couper”, gives the sense that its leaves are cut and the plant then regenerates.

Smallage flowers are flat, umbrella-like masses of tiny white blooms, similar to parsley. Its seeds are what is sold as “celery seed” (i.e. not the seeds from the domesticated, familiar, celery plants), and are used in culinary applications. The seeds have a powerful celery flavour with a tinge of bitterness, so they used sparingly, quite often in a lot of pickling mixes. The flavour of the celery seed enhances salt and ground seeds are mixed with salt and sold as “celery salt”. Celery salt is used as a seasoning, in cocktails (notably to enhance the flavour of Bloody Mary cocktails). Note that seeds intended for cultivation are not suitable for eating as they are often treated with fungicides. Buy the culinary packaged seeds for cooking uses.

Smallage is used as a herb with its leaves providing a strong and slightly bitter flavour that enhances other strong flavours (e.g. beef stew, mutton dishes, pork dishes, mixed vegetable and meat soups). The young, tender, raw leaves can be used in salads, while older more mature leaves can be used when boiling, stewing and roasting. In France, smallage is used in soups and stews, as cooks there prefer its stronger, more concentrated flavour than the milder, domesticated celery. If smallage is asked for in a recipe and its not available, one may use the leaves of the domesticated celery variety (the heart leaves in salads and the external leaves for cooking).

The English word “smallage” comes from “small ache” (pronounced “small ash”). “Ache” was an old French word for celery. Smallage is sometimes thought to be what the Greeks called σέλινον - selinon, but they used the same word for this and for parsley, so one cannot be sure which herb was meant by the author. The Romans also used the same word (apium) for both smallage and parsley. Later both Latin and Greek came to have separate names for parsley, to distinguish it from celery. In Greek, πετροσέλινον (petroselinon, petra meaning “rock” and selinon meaning “celery”, so parsley was “rock celery’). From the Greek word, the Romans derived their more precise word for parsley, petroselinum.

Traditionally, smallage was used medicinally and in Greek and Roman funeral rites, not being used in cooking until the Middle Ages. A chthonian (i.e.underworld) symbol among the ancient Greeks, smallage, parsley and celery were said to have sprouted from the blood of Kadmilos, father of the Cabeiri (chthonian divinities celebrated in Samothrace, Lemnos, and Thebes). The spicy odour and dark leaf colour encouraged this association with the cult of death. In classical Greece, celery leaves were used as garlands for the dead, and the wreaths of the winners at the Isthmian Games were first made of celery before being replaced by crowns made of pine. According to Pliny the Elder in Achaea, the garland worn by the winners of the sacred Nemean Games was also made of celery. The Ancient Greek colony of Selinous (Greek: Σελινοῦς, Selinous), on Sicily, was named after wild parsley that grew abundantly there; Selinountian coins depicted a parsley leaf as the symbol of the city.

Smallage root was used in preparations for its carminative effect and the use of celery seed in pills for relieving pain was described by Aulus Cornelius Celsus around AD 30. Celery seeds contain a compound, 3-n-butylphthalide, that has been demonstrated to lower blood pressure in rats. Celery juice significantly reduced hypertension in some patients and the same effect on hypertension associated with pregnancy has also been documented. Bergapten in the seeds can increase photosensitivity, so the use of essential oil externally in bright sunshine should be avoided. The oil and large doses of seeds should be avoided during pregnancy, as they can act as a uterine stimulant and cause miscarriages.

Celery and smallage are among a small group of foods (headed by peanuts) that appear to provoke the most severe allergic reactions; for people with celery allergy, exposure can cause potentially fatal anaphylactic shock. The allergen does not appear to be destroyed at cooking temperatures. Celery root (commonly eaten as celeriac, or put into drinks) is known to contain more allergen than the stalk. Seeds contain the highest levels of allergen content. Celery allergy is most prevalent in Central Europe. In the European Union, foods that contain or may contain celery, even in trace amounts, must be clearly marked as such.

A sprig of smallage in the language of flowers means “I shall love you until I die”, while flowering stalks should only be used in funeral wreaths, having the meaning of “Rest in Peace”.

No comments:

Post a Comment