- generous 1/2 cup olive oil
- lemon wedges, to serve
- generous 1/2 cup long grain rice, washed and drained
- salt and ground black pepper
- 1 lb leeks, chopped
- 1 tomato, skinned and chopped
- juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1 carrot, sliced
- 1 tsp sugar
Leeks have been cultivated since the time of the Ancient Egyptians. Dried specimens from ancient sites, as well as wall carvings and drawings, show that the leek was a part of the Egyptian diet from around the 2nd millennium B.C. Surviving texts show that leeks were also grown in Mesopotamia from about the same period.
The leek was the favorite vegetable of the Emperor Nero, who consumed it most often in soup. Nero got through so many that he gained the nickname Porophagus (leek eater). According to Pliny’s “Historia Naturalis”, Nero ate them prepared in oil, believing it would aid in maintaining the clarity of his voice.
Its introduction to the British Isles would elevate this simple garden-variety plant to a higher status as the national symbol for Wales. The Phoenicians are said to have been the first to bring leeks to Britain when trading tin with the Welsh where it soon became part of the staple diet.
In about 640 AD, when the Saxons were fighting the Welsh, King Cadwallader told his Welsh soldiers to wear leeks as a badge to distinguish themselves from their blood-thirsty opponents. To this day, the Welsh still wear a leek or a representation of one in their hats. When in war, leeks were thought to have aided in victory.
Wales’ association with leeks was recorded by William Shakespeare, in his play Henry V, where Welsh Captain Fluellen says to young King Hal:
“Your majesty says very true: if your majesties is remembered of it, the Welshmen did good service in a garden where leeks did grow, wearing leeks in their Monmouth caps; which, your majesty know, to this hour is an honourable badge of service; and I do believe your majesty takes no scorn to wear the leek up Saint Tavy’s day.”
The leek is also associated with Saint David, Dewi Sant. David was a holy man, a missionary and a founder of monasteries. He reputedly lived on nothing but bread, water, herbs (watercress has been suggested) and leeks.
Despite that, or perhaps because of it, he was a strong, tall man and lived to a ripe old age. David was formally canonised 600 years after his death in 1120, but long before that he was remembered as a man in whom God’s power had worked wonders.
The leek acquired mystic virtues. For example, girls who go to sleep on St David’s Day with a leek under their pillow will see their future husband in their dreams.
The juice of the plant is used as a moth repellent, and the whole plant is said to repel insects and moles.
Leek is said to be a diuretic and a blood building agent. Wild leeks have medicinal properties similar to wild onion. Drink a bulb infusion to treat colds, and high blood pressure.
The leek wasn’t always held in such high regard. The French called it the “Asparagus of the Poor” until one of France’s own, Chef Louis Diat, at New York’s Ritz Carlton Hotel at the turn of the century, created the famous dish based on a traditional recipe used by his mother and named it after his home town, Vichy. Vichyssoise, a cold soup made of leeks and potatoes, is now a world celebrated classic dish.
Diat related his recollection of the invention in New Yorker magazine in 1950:
“In the summer of 1917, when I had been at the Ritz seven years, I reflected upon the potato-and-leek soup of my childhood, which my mother and grandmother used to make. I recalled how, during the summer, my older brother and I used to cool it off by pouring in cold milk, and how delicious it was. I resolved to make something of the sort for the patrons of the Ritz.”