"By this leek I will most horribly revenge"
--William Shakespeare: Henry V: V, 1
"What are poireaux?"
"It looks like long, green, quite big onions," young Tom said. "Only it's not bright shiny like onions. It's dull shiny. The leaves are green and the ends are white. You boil it and eat it cold with olive oil and vinegar mixed with salt and pepper. You eat the whole thing, top and all. It's delicious. I believe I've eaten as much of it as maybe anyone in the world."
Those deep-rooted leeks
are washed so sparkling white--
--Matsua Basho (1644-1694), from Haiuku
His eyes were as green as leeks."
--Thisbe, in A Midsummer's Night's Dream, V, 1
"Wel loved he garlek, oinons, and eek leekes,/And for to drinke strong win, reed as blood"
--Chaucer, describing the Summoner, Prologue, 634.
"As often as you have eaten the strong-smelling shoots of Tarentine leeks, give kisses with shut mouth"
--Martial, Epigrams, Book XIII, 18
Leeks bee of ill juyce, and doe make troublous dreams [but] they do extenuate and cleanse the body"
--Sir Thomas Elyot, The Castle of Health, 1610
Leeks have been cultivated since at least 3000 BC, and they are native to the broad region stretching from Israel to India.
Phoenician traders introduced the leek to Wales when they engaged in the tin trade in the British Isles--a casual act that would unexpectedly elevate this humble plant to national status. Legend has it that in 640 AD, the Briton King Cadwallader was sorely pressed by invading Saxons. To distinguish themselves from the enemy, the Welsh wore leeks in their hats--and subsequently gained a great victory over their enemies. Since that time, the Welsh have proudly eaten and worn the distinctive vegetable as a matter of national pride. Witness the tender scene in Shakespeare's Henry V when Fluellen turns to the victorious 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 the service; and I do
believe your majesty takes no scorn to wear the leek
upon Saint Tavy's day." (Act IV, Scene 7)
Pliny writes in Historia Naturalis (XIX, 33), that Nero ate leeks in oil every day in the belief that they would maintain the clarity of his voice.
The French have long described leeks as "the asparagus of the poor," and it is fitting that one of her proudest chefs--Louis Diat--would create an internationally famous leek soup based on the "poor people" soup of his predecessor Parmentier (see the FoodTale on Potatoes). Vichyssoise, to the surprise of nearly everyone, was created on American shores at the turn of the century--in New York City's Ritz Carlton Hotel. Chef Diat recalls in Cooking a la Ritz a hot soup of leeks and potatoes that his mother used to make:
"But in summer, when the soup seemed to be too hot, we asked for milk with which to cool it. Many years later, it was this memory which gave me the inspiration to make the soup which I have named Creme Vichyssoise."
In China, leeks have traditionally been served by the poor on festive occasions, witness Tu Fu's poignant "Visiting an Old Friend," written in the 8th century (trans. J.A. Turner):
Unmeeting in this life we move
As stars alternate rise and set.
When shall a night like this night prove,
Where thus by candle-light we're met?
How fleet is youth! Our brows now grey,
We talk of those whom we have known:
And the chafed heart moans in dismay;
For half of them are dead and gone.
Unwed when you took leave of me,
Dear friend, some twenty years ago
How strange all suddenly to see
Your sons and daughters in a row!
Smiling they greet Papa's comrade
And ask about my wanderings:
Then, ere my answers all are made,
You bid them lay the table-things.
Spring leeks fresh cut in evening dew
We taste, and steaming millet mess.
"Such meetings," cries my host, "are few.
Ten flagons must we drink, no less!"
Ten flagons--Ay, but sober still.
Thanks for your faithful courtesy.
Sundered by peaks unscalable,
Tomorrow shall we strangers be.