Welsh Winter Leeks

Prize-winning leeks at the RHS Harvest Festival Show 2018
Prize-winning leeks at the RHS Harvest Festival Show 2018. © Karen Netto (Andrews)

Leek and potato soup has been a firm family favourite for a cold winter evening for many years. With so many family members suffering from food allergies and intolerances, we particularly appreciate a recipe that can be both dairy- and gluten-free. Leeks offer a strong flavour that stands apart from the many tasteless, free-from recipes. Our favourite recipe uses a floury rather than waxy potato variety. It keeps the ingredients chunky rather than liquidising them. It is healthy, filling and always goes down a treat.

Health Benefits

Leeks are recognised as an excellent source of vitamin C as well as iron and fibre. They promote healthy blood vessels and heart function, like onions and garlic.

Allium species

Leeks, Allium ameloprasum, are a member of the Amaryllidaceae or Onion Family. The cultivated species is sometimes also named Allium porrum. Leeks are leafy, biennial herbs. We eat the bundle of leaf sheaths that are sometimes incorrectly described as a stem or stalk.

Cut leeks Creative Commons Mig Bardsley via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/quietpictures/186342753
Cut Leeks reveal the leaf sheaths CC Mig Bardsley via Flickr

Trenches

Leeks are grown in trenches. Covering the leaf bases encourages the plant to increase the length of the tasty, white portion. If allowed to flower, small violet flowers appear in a rounded cluster.

Wild and Cultivated

The wild and cultivated species are considered to resemble each other too closely to be classed as separate species. Research on the Kew Plant List 1.1 shows Allium porrum as a synonym and Allium ameloprasum as the accepted name. Kew’s Plants of the World notes that there are some 920 Allium species, so a little lumping is probably to be appreciated.

Origin

Leeks are an ancient vegetable that was known to the Egyptians, Greeks and ancient Sumerians. The Romans considered the Leek a more superior vegetable to onions and garlic. The Roman Emperor Nero earned the nickname Porrophagus (Leek-eater) because he ate so many of them in the hope of improving his singing voice. The Romans are thought to have introduced Leeks to the British Isles. Leeks handled our unpredictable winter climate well, became a staple vegetable and boasted a few medicinal uses too.

Welsh Emblem

Our family’s many Welsh ancestors took the Leek to their hearts, going as far as to adopt it as a national emblem. The history and myth is muddled. The true timeline is confused. The attribution to a specific Welsh leader is uncertain. Multiple versions of the story exist in different time periods. The consistent part is that the Welsh soldiers wore leeks on their helmets to distinguish them from the enemy. This was probably the lighter, wild version rather than the heavy, cultivated one. The Welsh still like to wear Leeks with pride today, often in preference to the sweeter smelling Daffodil.

Leek and potato soup cooking in frying pan. © Karen Netto (Andrews)

© Karen Netto (Andrews)

References and Further Reading

Christenhusz, Maarten J. M. & Fay, Michael F. & Chase, Mark W. (2017): Plants of the World. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Vascular Plants. Kew. Chicago.

Davidson, Alan (2006): The Oxford Companion to Food. Edited by Tom Jaine. Oxford University Press. Oxford. UK. (Leek p.450).

Johnson, Ben (?): The Leek – National Emblem of the Welsh. Historic UK. Last accessed 16 December 2019.

van Wyk, Ben-Erik (2005): Food Plants of the World. An illustrated guide. Timber Press. Portland, Oregon. USA.

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