It might have something to do with my Welsh ancestry, but I’m a stark raving mad fan of the leek. That’s right, the leek. My grandpa spoke Welsh Gaelic and my great-grandmother was from a town in Glamorgan called Merthyr Tydfil, which in the mid 19th century was such a hardscrabble, working class place that the Scottish writer Thomas Caryle described its inhabitants in less than glowing terms: “Such unguided, hard-worked, fierce, and miserable-looking sons of Adam I never saw before. Ah me! It is like a vision of Hell”.
Carlyle was obviously prone to hyperbole, because my great-granny, Mary Rees, wasn’t a fierce looking woman at all. She was short, chubby, and had a kind face. And I like to believe, gave me my taste for leeks. After all, the plant is a national emblem of Wales. Legend has it that during a 6th century battle in a leek field, the Welsh had trouble distinguishing themselves from the English. Saint David suggested that his troops wear leeks on their hats as identification. They obliged, and won what was sure to be a bloody, and no doubt, fragrant battle.
To commemorate the occasion Wales celebrates St David’s Day on March 1 each year. It’s tradition on the day to wear a leek on the lapel, and school kids gain status by wearing the biggest leek, and being the first among their peers to eat it raw. Another tradition is to eat cawl, a hearty soup made from leeks accompanied by beef, bacon and seasonal vegetables such as potato, carrot and swede. We make something similar in our household and it is right up there as one of my favourite winter meals.
To have leeks ready to pick by late winter, it’s vital to get them started now. Ignore northern hemisphere advice to plant leeks in spring. In our climate the plants tend to bolt early once the summer heat kicks in, but started now, they’ll have plenty of time to grow on while theirs still warmth in the soil and produce beautiful fat shanks ready for harvest in about three months.
You can sow leek seed directly into reasonably rich, slightly alkaline soil. It’s a good companion crop with carrots, liking similar conditions and helping to deter carrot fly. The more successful option, at least in my experience, is to plant seedlings. You can start these yourself by sowing seed into punnets, then plant the seedlings into prepared ground when they’re about 20cm tall. An easy way to plant out the seedlings is to carefully tease apart each plant, make a hole about five to 10 centimetres deep with a dibber (conical garden tool), and place the seedling into the hole. Don’t worry about backfilling. Simply water the plants in and wash some of the surface soil into the hole. Deep planting like this also helps to create a blanched shank.
What on earth is a blanched shank, you ask? The shank is the stem of the leek below the leaves, and blanching creates a white and tender shank by excluding light during the growing season. Some people go to extreme lengths to blanch their shanks. The traditional method is to hill up the soil around the plant as it grows, leaving just the leaves exposed to the light. Others slip a cut-off milk carton over the plant, or wrap cardboard around the shank. It’s all a bit of a beat up, to be honest. The blanching process makes only a minor difference to the texture and flavour of the shank, and it’s something I never get around to doing in any capacity beyond deep planting. My leeks still taste superb.
There isn’t a huge range of of varieties to choose from in Australia. ‘Musselburgh’ is a famous old commercial variety from Scotland that forms very thick shanks and has a mild onion flavour. ‘King Richard’ (sold by the Diggers Club), is an early cropping, long shanked variety that is almost self-blanching. My favourite is ‘Giant Carentian’ (or Carentan), an old European leek that forms thick, white shanks and has a sweet and delicate flavour.
Whether that flavour is sweet and delicate enough to be worn on the lapel remains to be seen, but gently caramelised in butter over a medium heat, home grown leek is a taste sensation. You don’t need to be Welsh to enjoy this outstanding member of the onion family.
First published in the Toowoomba Chronicle 20th April 2013