Readers of this website will be aware of my reverence for leftfield ingredients. So it was a delight to encounter celtuce on my recent adventure down at Cinderwood, the chef-led market garden in Cheshire.
Grower Michael Fitzsimmons pointed it out, an unglamorous leafy straggle in the lee of the polytunnel. At first glance a cross between dandelion and chard. “I’m really excited about it,” Michael told me. “The plant is like a lettuce that has bolted. It grows tall and might productively flourish nine months of the year. This variety is called ‘Purple Sword’. We’ve got our eye on another, but we’ll have to order the seeds from America.”
That’s where chef Joseph Otway first discovered the joy of celtuce when he was working at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a groundbreaking high end ‘farm to fork’ restaurant yoked to non-profit educational space Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. The emphasis there is on tasting menus using produce plucked from the fields hours before.
I’m going to have to take the word of transatlantic celtuce fans for what a mature plant turns out like. Apparently at full maturity the stems are roughly 20cm long but just 5cm wide. One food writer described it as like a cos lettuce on top of a gnarly broccoli-like stem, the tops long and luscious. Its origins are in the Mediterranean, but it found its true home after it migrated to China and Tibet via the trade routes.
In that country the stem and leaves are referred by different names: wosun and yóumàicài and have different uses. Like our own Swiss chard it is two vegetable in one.
Generally the slightly bitter leaves braised in a broth; in Sichuan the nutty, mild-tasting stems, once peeled, are stir-fried quickly or, raw, they add a water chestnut-like crunch to salads. It pickles well, too. And you can grill it like lettuce (no relation).
Via Dan Barber’s championing of it at his Blue Hill restaurants its has become a green rival to kale and sprouts on menus from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Expect it to conquer all before it eventually in Manchester. High in vitamins A and C and potassium, it even panders to health kicks.
Barber has credited Jack Algiere, the farm director at Stone Barns, with ‘discovering’ celtuce, but it is a vegetable that has ‘been in the public domain’ since the 1890s when it was sold as asparagus lettuce. In the early 1940s it made a reappearance in the catalogue of Pennsylvania’s W.Atlee Burpee Company after a missionary posted some seeds from China. I discovered all this from Jane Grigson’s perennially useful Vegetable Book (1978), where a page and a half on celtuce is sandwiched between celeriac (also once ‘queer gear’) and chayote (still is).
And so to hon tsai tai…
In less enlightened times greengrocers used to call exotic veg ‘queer gear’. The late TV talk show host Russell Harty used to claim that his stall holder father Fred “introduced the avocado to Blackburn Market”. Sadly diminished these days, it’s unlikely to be showcasing the likes of hon tsai tai any time soon.
But this leafy Asian arrival may soon be joining celtuce in the sprouting ranks at Cinderwood. Michael Fitzimmons’ next ‘project’ may be cultivating this plant, whose kinship is with cime di rapa (broccoli rabe). It sports dark green leaves with purple veins and deep purple stems with small yellow flowers. Everything is edible and apparently offers a sweet mustardiness, brought out by the inevitable stir-frying.
Another veg of Chinese origin, kailan, offers a similar taste profile. Might this be the next ‘new’ veg on our plates? So many greens, so little time.