Michele Roberts finds infinite variety in leeks

The leek is the green queen of every Norman's winter vegetable garden

Leeks look beautiful growing, their criss-cross pattern of green leaves, tightly enfolded, breaking out into a fan at the top. I buy them pencil-thick, in bunches, at the market in July, and plant them out in minutes, just dibbing holes and sticking the leeks in. No need to firm up the earth; the rain does that. You keep cutting off the green crown to encourage the white, hidden part to swell, and you harvest the fully developed vegetable all through the winter, just pulling one up as required.

Leeks are staples for country people in northern France. The potager is the soup garden, furnishing the evening meal, and the poireau rules as queen. I make leek soup at this time of year when I am in need of intense greenness to cheer me up and ward off colds. You finely slice the leeks, sweat them gently in butter until they have shrunk down, then pour on either just water or home-made vegetable stock and add a diced potato or two. After 20 minutes' simmering, you whisk or blend the soup to smoothness. Good Normans add a spoonful of cream at this point. I prefer the soup without, and without too many spuds. Then it has the simplicity and purity my palate seeks after all the rich midwinter feasting.

The Emperor Nero thought likewise. Every day, he ate a bowl of leek soup, which he believed would improve his singing voice, of which he was vain. Hence he became nicknamed Porrophagus ("leek-eater"). The ancients, just as snobbish as we are about fashionable ingredients, considered leeks superior to their poor relations onions and garlic. Alan Davidson, in The Oxford Companion to Food, points out that Apicius gives four recipes for leeks in their own right. Modern-day Italians may bake the blanched leeks in cream, or braise them with little bits of dripping, a pinch of sugar, and mixed herbs. Both the Italians and the French are fond of leeks a la grecque: braised in olive oil and white wine with coriander seeds and bay leaves, served hot or cold. The Belgians put cooked leeks into the delicious pie they call flamiche. The Scots combine them with chopped chicken in cock-a-leekie. The Catalans celebrate the coming of spring with a thin, fine version of the leek, close to a giant spring onion, called calcot, grilled over an open fire outdoors, a kind of barbecue they call calcotada.

These small, delicate leeks were probably what the legend has 7th-century Welshmen wearing in their hats in order to show what side they were on during a battle against the Saxons. Leac meant not only leek but also any kind of onion or garlic (gar-leac). If the Welsh had had big fat whoppers of leeks to hand, perhaps they could have fought with them in enjoyably ritualised combat? Leeks at dawn, and the victor to make the green breakfast soup.

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