In Season For March – Leeks

Leeks Image result for graphics of leeks

Leeks have been cultivated since the time of the Ancient Egyptians and were probably part of the diet of those who built the pyramids. Hippocrates the ancient Greek physician and ‘father of medicine’ prescribed the leek as a cure for nosebleeds. The Romans considered the leek a superior vegetable and Emperor Nero got through so many he gained the nickname Porophagus (leek eater); he is reported to have thought that eating leeks would improve his singing voice!

Phoenician traders are said to have introduced the leek to Wales when they were trading for tin in the British Isles – an act that would unexpectedly elevate this humble veg to national status thousands of years later. Legend has it that in 640AD, the Briton King Cadwallader and his men were engaged in battle with invading Saxons. To distinguish themselves from the enemy, the Welsh wore leeks in their hats – and subsequently gained a great victory over their opponents.

The leek is also associated with the Welsh Saint David. During the Middle Ages when Saint David was alive the leek was seen as a healthy and virtuous plant. Extraordinary qualities were claimed for it. It was the original health food, high in fibre, good for purging the blood, keeping colds at bay and healing wounds. During this period the leek also acquired mystic virtues. It was claimed that girls who slept with a leek under their pillow on St David’s Day would see their future husband in their dreams.

A 16th Century reference to the leek as a Welsh emblem is found in the Account Book of Princess Mary Tudor. Earlier still, in the fourteenth century it is known that the feared Welsh archers adopted the green and white colours of the leek for their uniforms, probably at the battle of Crecy. The leek is worn in the caps of today’s Welsh soldiers every year on St David’s Day. On the same day, in the prestigious Welsh Guards Regiment, a large raw leek has to be eaten by the youngest recruits to the cheers of comrades. The green and white plume worn in the ‘Bearskin’ hats of the Guards also identifies them as belonging to a Welsh Regiment. According to tradition, the 600 soldiers of The Royal Welsh regiment are worked with ‘gunfire’ – tea laced with rum – served by senior ranks and officers on St David’s Day.

Leeks – International Dishes

Leeks are a staple food for the country people of Northern France.  The Potager is the traditional soup made from garden vegetables and forming part of the evening meal and leeks are key ingredients.

Modern day Italians bake blanched leeks in cream or braise them with a little dripping, a pinch of sugar and mixed herbs. Both the Italians and French are fond of leeks a la Grecque: braised in olive oil and white wine with coriander seeds and bay leaves.

The Belgians put cooked leeks into a delicious pie they call Flamiche.

The Scots combine leeks with chopped chicken in their native Cock-a-leekie soup.

The Catalans celebrate the coming of spring with a thin, fine version of the leek, close to a giant spring onion, called a Calcot, grilled over an open fire outdoors.

United States
One of the best-known leek dishes, Vichyssoise, was created by a French chef on American shores.  Louis Diat chef at New York’s Ritz Carlton Hotel at the turn of the century, created the well-known dish based on a traditional recipe used by his mother and named it after his home town Vichy.


Leeks are a truly versatile vegetable. They have a milder, sweeter flavour than onions and a smooth texture similar to asparagus. In fact, in France leeks are often called the ‘poor man’s asparagus’. Leeks can be cooked in all sorts of different and delicious ways including:

  • Pan fried – heat a small amount of olive oil and butter in a frying pan, add some sliced leeks and gently cook for about 5-10 minutes until tender
  • Sautéed – for super healthy leeks, sauté with fennel and garnish with fresh lemon juice and thyme
  • Stir fried – heat a little oil over a high heat in a frying pan or wok, add some prepared leeks and stir fry for a few minutes
  • Baked – place some sliced leeks in an oven-proof dish, sprinkle with cheese or cover with white sauce and bake for 30-40 minutes at 190°C
  • Roasted – pour some olive oil into a roasting tray and add leeks, making sure they are coated all over. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt and roast in the oven (210°C) for 30 minutes
  • Braised – pour a small amount of chicken or vegetable stock into a frying pan, add some prepared, sliced leeks, cover and gently cook for 10-15 minutes. Braised leeks dusted with fennel or mustard seeds are a delicious accompaniment to fish, poultry or steak
  • Raw – spice up a salad by adding finely chopped leeks and dress generously with vinaigrette

Leeks make a fantastically flavoursome vegetable side dish. Equally, they work wonderfully in a wide variety of recipes such as casseroles, omelettes and frittatas, risottos, quiches, pasta sauces and soups.

Minimising waste

In the UK we tend to eat only the white part of the leek, throwing away the dark green leafy ‘flag’ which is considered tough and unpalatable.  In fact this is a misapprehension and in Continental Europe consumers happily eat the entire vegetable, reducing waste and saving money. The darker green parts of the leek are in fact packed with flavour, the leaves are a little tougher – but that just means cooking them for a little longer than the white parts and chopping them more finely.

Braising, slow cooking or blending works particularly well if you want to minimise food waste and use the full leek.  The darker, green leaves also make a fabulous bouquet garni – they are ideal for wrapping bundles of fresh herbs and then can be used for flavouring soups and stews. Just consider the dark green flag as you would a tougher cut of meat such as a brisket, chuck or hangar steak.  They can be equally delicious but just need to be prepared slightly differently and cooked for longer, to ensure a tasty end result.

Find a farm shop near you offering freshly picked leeks this month in The UK Farm Shop Guide.

Shop local and love your farm shop 💚


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