The humble leek is a stalwart veg for the winter
The ancient Romans believed eating leeks led to a stronger voice, but these days they're better known for their good health benefits
NOW that my vegetable patch is really starting to wind down for the winter months, there are just five fresh vegetables left in the ground holding the fort: parsnips, carrots, celeriac, kale and leeks.
There's a fine crop of leeks this year. While there are still so many other wonderful vegetables (such as celeriac, carrots, pumpkin, squash, etc) to eat from the veg patch and from the larder, we try to hold off until post-Christmas to start delving into the leeks.
In fact, the St Stephen's Day stalwart of turkey and leek pie is normally the first outing for them (a whopping 2kg of them in fact).
Leeks often don't grab the health headlines the way their allium cousins (garlic and onions) do, but they contain most of the same flavonoids and sulfur-containing nutrients. A mere 100g of leeks contains over half of your daily vitamin K requirements, 30pc of vitamin A and high levels of vitamins B and C, iron and folate. They are also high in polyphenols, and therefore useful as support for any health issues related to oxidative stress or low-level inflammation.
There is a traditional, and rather unlikely in my view, link between a strong voice and the consumption of leeks, with the ancient Roman emperor Nero supposedly eating them daily to make his voice stronger. It was the Romans, in fact, who are credited with introducing leeks to these parts, and they did well here since they are unaffected by winter cold.
They were so popular across the Irish Sea that they became the national emblem of Wales and the national soup of Scotland.
It's not clear whether the leek as Welsh national emblem arose because of the custom of Welsh soldiers wearing leeks in their caps to differentiate themselves from their opponents, or because the vegetable could withstand the cold Welsh winter. Perhaps it was a little of both.
The leek remains an important vegetable in many northern European cuisines and is the core ingredient in the famous French vichyssoise and Scotland's national soup, cock-a-leekie.
When the Scots speak about a dish that will chase away the winter chills, they really know what they're talking about – the men wear kilts and no undies in the winter for God's sake. Cock-a-leekie soup is a wondrously healing, warming affair and well worth adding to your winter recipe arsenal.
I always think 'soup' is somewhat of a misnomer here – it's far more substantial than that, more like a chicken and leek stew.
The wonderful name derives from a mispronunciation. When Mary Queen of Scots left France to claim the Scottish throne in 1561, she brought her chefs along with her and one of her favourite dishes was coq au leek (rooster with leek). It's hard not to smile when imagining how quickly that morphed into cock-a-leekie in Scotland.
Leeks are quite easy to grow and you can grow a decent amount of them in a relatively small space. I sow mine in module trays, before transplanting them to the veg patch outside about two months later.
Though a tiny black seed, they are very reliable to grow. I just pop one or two seeds in each module at 1cm deep, and within a fortnight they germinate and quickly develop into a long, often straggly, seedling. If two little seedlings grow in each module, you have a decision to make when planting out.
If you plant them in the same hole you will get two smaller leeks growing together. If you take them apart and plant them in two separate holes, you will get two larger leeks growing apart.
It's really up to you. I've tried both methods and prefer growing them apart to get the larger leeks – smaller ones are undoubtedly flavoursome, but they are too little for my liking.
If you're a real leek head and want a continuous supply (and you have the space) sow as follows:
(1) February – plant out in April, will be ready to eat in early autumn.
(2) March – plant out in May, will be ready to eat in early winter.
(3) May – plant out in June, will be ready to eat in late winter.
I'm a one-sowing kind of guy – so I will generally sow one decent batch some time in March/April and start eating them in January.
The traditional process of planting leeks is somewhat of a palaver called 'puddling in'. You make a 6-inch hole with a dibber, drop the leek in and then fill the hole gently with water. Do not backfill with soil.
Gardener Klaus Laitenberger advocates planting them as you would any seedling. Make a hole, pop in seedling and backfill with soil. Job done. I've tried both methods and haven't noticed any difference, so I think his way is probably easiest.
Leave 15cm between plants and 30cm between rows and keep the leek bed well weeded. Leeks have to be earthed up during the growing season to encourage the bleaching or whitening of the stem. Earth up twice during the season.
When harvesting, don't pull the leek out by the top as you would a carrot – their roots are surprisingly fibrous and strong. Use a fork instead.
Winter varieties can stay in the ground until needed, although in a very harsh winter you might use them up.
Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY.