Stem lettuce (Lactuca sativa var. augustana) or celery lettuce (also “celtuce”) is a variety of lettuce cultivated not for its leaves, but for its thick stems, which are rich in vitamin C. This vegetable is associated particularly with Chinese cuisines, and is therefore often referred to as Chinese lettuce, but it may have originated in the Mediterranean, and it has traditionally been cultivated in Poland. Głąbik krakowski is a variety of stem lettuce from Krakow, and is also known as Krakow celtuce or Charles’s celtuce. It is not certain when stem lettuce was first cultivated around Krakow, but it is mentioned in recipes and scientific literature from the 18th and 19th centuries: A document from 1843 says that stem lettuce was a typical crop from the region and had been planted since time immemorial. However, it is likely that stem lettuce did not appear in Poland before the 16th century, when Queen Bona Sforza, who was originally from Milan, introduced many Italian vegetables to the Polish and Lithuanian cuisines.
While most varieties of celtuce have a green stem, głąbik krakowski has red stems with green leaves. It needs fertile soil and plenty of water, but is resistant to cold. It can be sown directly in the field or garden, and takes 10-14 weeks to mature, depending on the weather. Though głąbik krakowski can grow to a height of 70 centimeters, it is usually harvested at a height of 25-30 cm, before the flower buds form; if it is allowed to grow taller, it becomes bitter and the stem becomes tough. The leaves are also edible, though they tend to be bitter. The young stems are juicy and fleshy with a pleasant lettuce flavor. They can be consumed raw or cooked, and are also pickled, in which case they taste like a milder version of pickled cucumber. To make głąbik krakowski pickle, the stems are washed, peeled, put into a jar, seasoned with fennel and garlic, and then covered with a brine made by adding a tablespoon of salt and a teaspoon of sugar to a liter of boiling water. The pickles are used in soup and were a traditional cure for hangover.
During the communist period that followed World War II, Poland’s centrally planned economy and the rise of industry destroyed many of the country’s agricultural and culinary traditions, and the cultivation of głąbik krakowski declined. Today it is still grown in some urban gardens in Krakow, and small-scale farmers in the surrounding countryside have started to cultivate it out of curiosity. However, though the seeds are available from several companies, it is very difficult to find fresh or pickled głąbik krakowski in food markets.