(Allium porrum or A. ampeloprasum var. porrum— Family Liliaceae)
A. ampeloprasum is the wild leek
and ancestor of the modern cultivated leeks. However, there are also cultivars of the wild leek in the Elephant garlic group.
European and Middle Eastern cultivated leeks differ from each other, and many authorities disagree on classifying the latter as A. kurrat, which is the Arabic name for the leek.
The Middle Eastern leek has narrower leaves than the European type and a distinct, often subdivided bulb. The taste is the same, and it is used in the same way; but the leaves are less coarse.
The ancient Egyptians took the leek into cultivation and bred improved varieties with thicker stems, as depicted in their tomb paintings.
Both the Greeks and the Romans were partial to the leek, especially the Emperor Nero, who ate huge quantities in the belief they would improve his singing voice. Despite its apparent failure in that regard, the Romans still considered the leek to be a superior vegetable, unlike garlic and onions, which were considered to be coarse food of the poor.
Some have suggested that it was the Romans who introduced the leek into Britain and Wales, who subsequently adopted the vegetable as their own. It is said that Welsh warriors wore leeks in their hats to show which side they were on in a victorious battle against the Saxons in the 7th century. It was after this that the leek became a national symbol of Wales.
However, that version is skeptical because, in Saxon times, the word leac was the generic term used for any kind of onion or garlic. Even the broader term of bradeleac (broad leek) was also applied to ramsons (wild garlic). Either way, the leek remains a national treasure.
Early botanical works have stated that the true leek did not reach Britain until much later, which is another hole punched into the romanticized version.
The leek was considered sacred in ancient times, and swearing by the leek was equivalent to swearing by one of the gods and still stirs up such passions. Giant leek contests
have been held in pubs and clubs throughout the northeast of England since the mid 1880s. One winner in 1885, second prize of one English pound and a sheep’s heart was awarded. Today, prizes exceed £1,300.
Currently, Europe produces over seven million tonnes of leeks per year, with France being the major producer.
Leeks look like very large green onions with thick, tough green tops and a white non-bulbing base. Like green onions, they are sold with roots attached; but, unlike green onions, they cannot be eaten raw as they are tough, coarse, and very hot. Once cooked, leeks develop a more complex flavour, being both mellow and astringent at the same time.
Many are grown as decorative plants in flower beds. As a biennial, leeks develop the first year from the bulb-like thickening of a leaf rosette. The stalk base and sheaths form the white to greenish-white stem, which can grow to sixteen inches in height on average, but can reach three feet in length. However, these are more highly prized by their growers than by cooks.
The stem is blanched by placing the plant in trenches up to eight inches deep, then progressively filling them with soil as the leek grows. The extra time and attention that leeks require for blanching during thefour months or so of growth, makes them more expensive than other onions.
The thickness of the stalk differs according to the variety and the season. Winter leeks can reach a diameter of up to two inches, but early leeks are marketed with a minimun width of half an inch.
Leeks are classified as summer, fall, and winter types, which vary in length and stem firmness as well as differing slightly in strength of taste.
There are also early, mid-season, and late varieties.
Older varieties can be divided into two main groups: long thin and short stout, but many modern cultivars do not exhibit such obvious differences.
They can also be rotated alongside garlic, onions, and shallots and are a good crop to follow potatoes when rotating crops.
Some varieties include the following:
is a mid to late harvested leek of medium length and with good bolting resistance.
Autumn Mammoth 2, Argenta, and Goliath
all mature in late autumn and can be harvested until mid-spring. It is a high yielding leek with a medium length shank and thick stems.
Bleu de Solaise
is a blue-tinged French winter variety that can be harvested until spring. It also makes a good ornamental border.
Cortina can be harvested through the winter and yields moderate crops.
is a high-yielding, mild-tasting early variety with a long shank. It is good for growing in small spaces for mini leeks.
is harvested in early autumn and has a moderate length shank.
Wild leek, Ramp (Allium tricoccum)
Probably the best known wild leek is the Canadian ramp, which resembles the scallion in appearance, but has a stronger flavour.
The smooth leaves are obviously lily-like and sharply defined, but the superstrong aroma comes from the garlic side of the family. It grows to about fourteen inches in length without counting their long hairy roots.
This wild leek is native to North America and flourishes in rich forest soil from Canada through New England to Georgia and as far west as Minnesota. In the Appalachians, where the name “ramp” originated, its emergence in the spring sets off a series of celebrations.
The Feast of Ramson
in Richwood, West Virginia, is one such festivity. The term “ramp” is probably derived from the name of a related species, ramson (Allium ursinum), or wild garlic. Ramson is derived from Ram’s son, related to the astrological sign for that time of year.