A Brief History of Foods: Leeks
According to a BBC News tweet (see right), the ‘Welsh leek’ could be set for protected status , alongside foods including Cheddar cheese and Cornish pasties, after an application from growers. Despite appearances to the contrary, the fact that this was tweeted in March 2022 suggests this is not an April Fool’s joke. So, what makes the Welsh variety of leek different to those from elsewhere? To justify the Welsh position, Tink Llewellyn explains all in this short video for the BBC.
As with many of the familiar, ‘traditional’ foods we are grow and regularly consume in the UK, their origins are often not we might assume. This series, ‘A Brief History of Foods’, reveals how surprisingly few of our commonly used ingredients are not native to these shores. Such is the case with leeks, Welsh or not.
The humble leek The leek is a vegetable, a cultivar of Allium ampeloprasum, the broadleaf wild leek (syn. Allium porrum). The genus Allium also contains the onion, garlic, shallot, scallion, chive, and Chinese onion. The name ‘leek’ developed from the Old English word leac, from which the modern English name for garlic also derives (Brewster, 2008, 30).
Rather than forming a tight bulb like the onion, the leek produces a long cylinder of bundled leaf sheaths that are generally blanched by pushing soil around them (trenching). Sometimes erroneously called a stem or stalk, the bundle of leaf sheaths, and the lighter green parts, are the edible parts of the plant. The dark green parts are usually discarded as they have a tougher texture. Unsurprisingly, given that they are from the Allium family, leeks have a mild, onion-like taste, and in their raw state, are crunchy and firm.
Most recipes typically call for leeks to be chopped into slices five to ten millimetre thick. In cooking, however, these slices have a tendency to fall apart because of their layered structure. Leeks can be eaten raw in salads, but are typically boiled, turning the vegetable softer and milder in taste, or fried to preserve their tasty crunch.
History The Hebrew Bible talks of חציר, which commentators have identified as the leek, saying it was abundant in Egypt (Zohary et al., 2012, 195). Dried specimens from archaeological sites in ancient Egypt, as well as wall carvings and drawings, indicate that the leek was a part of the Egyptian diet from at least the second millennium BC .
Leeks were an important vegetable and aromatic in both Greek and Roman cuisine, and appear over sixty times in the recipes of Apicius. According to Pliny (the Elder), to improve his voice the Emperor Nero would ‘eat leeks and oil every month, upon stated days, abstaining from every other kind of food, and not touching so much as a morsel of bread even’ (Pliny, Historia Naturalis, XIX.XXX). Regardless of the veracity of Pliny’s claims, the leek’s introduction and cultivation ‘spread northwards in Roman times’ and is evidenced by ‘leek seeds [being] found in excavations of sites in Roman Gaul, Britain, and Germany’ (Dalby, 2003, 193). In all three regions, as well as in many others, wherever leeks have been introduced, they have continued to be grown. Today there are several leek cultivars, which can be subdivided in several ways, but the most common types are ‘summer leeks’ intended for harvest in the season when planted, and overwintering leeks meant to be harvested in the spring of the following year. As far as we can tell, not one of these cultivars is known as a ‘Welsh’ leek.
The ‘Welsh’ leek? On the face of it, an application for ‘Welsh’ leeks to receive protected status is seemingly pointless . Why would anyone want to claim that a leek grown in England, Germany, France or indeed anywhere else was in fact ‘Welsh’? Is the suggestion that Welsh leeks are somehow different or superior to all others? According to one leek farmer, John Addams-Williams, they:
‘…tend to be slower growing, much stronger flavour, and they have a much more vibrant flag, and that’s really brilliant for using in Welsh dishes such as cawl’ .
That Mr Addams-Williams’ leeks are ‘slower growing’ may be a consequence of the prevailing cooler, wetter climate in Wales compared to elsewhere. As to whether they have a ‘stronger flavour’ is, firstly, his subjective opinion, and, secondly, a stronger flavour compared to what, or rather which, cultivars? As far as we are aware there is no specifically Welsh cultivar, so a leek from Wales is essentially just a leek. Mr Addams-Williams is not wrong, however, that the flavour of leeks grown in different areas or regions will vary. Yet this is less to do with their ‘Welshness’ and more to do with the variable length of the local growing season, the weather conditions, the type of soil, whether the plants have been forced or allowed to grow naturally and, for the consumer, how fresh they are - home-grown straight from the soil, bought from a nearby vegetable market, or travelling many miles to a supermarket shelf after weeks in cold-storage.
Cultural significance Today the leek has become synonymous with Welsh culture, but as we have seen, this could not have happened before the spread of Roman culture across Britain. In the video (link above), Carwyn Graves, a food historian, commented on the mythology surrounding the leek in Welsh history stating:
‘The mythology’s been there for at least around 1,000 years. You actually get reference to Welshmen wearing leeks in Shakespeare. There are reports of battles from the Saxon era and the Welsh soldier wore, or some of them at least, wore a leek as a distinguishing marker. There are other accounts that say there was a battle fought in a field of leeks. But either way, people were referring to leeks by the early Middle Ages as a kind of marker of the Welsh.’
As Graves alludes to, according to legend King Cadwaladr of Gwynedd ordered his soldiers to distinguish themselves by wearing the vegetable on their helmets in an unidentified battle fought against the Saxons in an undisclosed leek field (Cumo. 2013, 561). The truth of legends is always difficult to determine but there are many historical instances for the wearing flora or other symbols in hats to distinguish belligerents.
So, when in his play ‘Henry V’ William Shakespeare refers to the ‘ancient tradition’ of someone wearing a leek to signify they came from Wales, this has a genuine precedent. Whether wearing the leek was a peculiarly Welsh thing as the play might suggest is entirely another matter, however. Besides it is always worth remembering that Shakespeare was writing fiction not a history. Thus, like other contemporary authors, he undoubtedly drew inspiration from the past but also from the world around him. Shakespeare was, if nothing else, a man of his times and in his plays it is evident that he popularised national and racial stereotypes. Shakespeare as a source for the leek being a Welsh national icon is therefore questionable.
And finally… Some years ago we were portraying ‘Roman’ life at a history event in Wales. At one point a gentleman accosted the author and vehemently argued that the ‘Romans’ had not conquered the Welsh. No amount of historical evidence presented would persuade him that his belief was essentially wrong. We agreed to disagree. Yet how ironic that someone with such a passion for Welsh nationalism, who proudly wore the leek, failed to grasp the significance that if it were not for the Romans, this very symbol would have been denied him.
Brewster, J. L., (2008), Onions and other vegetable alliums (2nd ed.), Wallingford: CABI International.
Cumo, C., (2013), Encyclopedia of Cultivated Plants: From Acacia to Zinnia, ABC-CLIO.
Dalby, A. (2003), Food in the Ancient World from A to Z, London: Routledge.
Pliny, Historia Naturalis (‘Natural History’), Liber XIX, XXX (Book 19, Chapter 33 - The Leek).
Zohary, D., Hopf, M. and Weiss, E., (2012), Domestication of plants in the Old World: the origin and spread of domesticated plants in Southwest Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean Basin (4th ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press.
1. The UK geographical indication (GI) protected food names (PFN) scheme was created at the beginning of 2021 after the UK's withdrawal from the EU. It ensures certain food and drink products can continue to receive legal protection against imitation and misuse by awarding Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) or Traditional Specialties Guaranteed (TSG) status in line with current EU GI schemes. It must be comforting for British farmers to know that, in preserving trade with Europe, the UK government has removed dastardly EU protectionism in favour of some home-grown, and thus sovereign, UK protectionism.
2. The ancient Egyptian term for leeks also meant ‘vegetables’ in general (Dalby, 2003, 193).
3. It seems clear that the application to 'protect' Welsh leeks from 'imitation or misuse' is less to do with preserving cultural heritage and more to do with blatant commercialism.
4. We are not sure what Mr Addams-Williams meant by ‘vibrant flag’ but presume it might be a local term for the darker green leaves. Cawl (pronounced ‘cowl’), however, is a Welsh stew combining lamb and vegetables, including leek.