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Food

Treasures of Wales: Leeks and Love Spoons

By Iris Brooks
Published April 2, 2008

Our constantly traveling taste-tester, Iris Brooks, brings us the history of leeks, along with some recipes for this plant that's been the foundation of much Welsh cooking for hundreds of years.

Want a better voice? Consider the leek. The Roman Emperor Nero—nicknamed “leekeater”—declared the leek his favorite vegetable and thought it improved his singing voice. Both Greeks and Romans favored this mild-tasting vegetable from the onion family for its curative properties in aiding the sore throat. Aristotle claimed that a diet of leeks contributed to the clear voice of the partridge. But it was in Wales—a country known as the Land Of Song—where this vegetable was elevated to a national emblem, and is even found on some British one pound coins today.

History and folklore pertaining to the leek yield a variety of anecdotes. The vegetable is believed to have been around for about 4,000 years. St. David—who founded many monasteries—is said to have survived on a limited diet of bread, water, watercress and leeks. About sixty years after his death, some say seventh century Welsh warriors adorned their helmets with leeks to identify which side of the battle they were on as Saxons invaded, fighting in leek fi elds. The Welsh won, and today St. David’s Day, the national holiday of Wales, is celebrated every March 1 with leeks (and daffodils, the national flower) decorating caps and worn as corsages. Curiously, the word for leek and daffodil is the same in the Welsh language (spoken by about one in six of the country’s three million residents).

In Wales, the peninsula of the western part of Britain, some holiday traditions include a drummer, fifer, (and sometimes a goat) parading around the table while a drum major carries a silver platter filled with leeks. But beyond the folklore of the leek, it is also an important ingredient in their cuisine.

I recently spoke with Chef Colin Gray, heading up the Welsh National Culinary Team at the United Nations for an annual food festival celebrating the culinary traditions of Wales, and tasted some of his creations. He felt connecting the leek to Wales was a bit of a cliché. “There’s more to Welsh cooking than leeks,” asserted Gray, who is involved in food competitions throughout the world. While it is an important ingredient, he said the hearty, utilitarian fare that kept miners going in the past has been replaced by a lighter, more international restaurant cuisine. He still calls upon the leek for a variety of dishes, of course, including a delicate soup of leeks and potatoes with melt-in-your-mouth frothy goat cheese foam on top and fried leeks in the broth. Other modern day Welsh dishes include a vegetarian leek sausage, as well as a leek and goat cheese pressed terrine and a roulade—a sushi-like roll where the leek leaves take the place of seaweed. The Welsh lunch at the U.N. also offered a chance to sample other Welsh products available in the States: Patchwork Pate, Penderyn Whiskey, Llanllyr Water, and Tomos Watkin Ale.

Leaving the United Nations behind, I remembered Welsh folklore of another sort. The tradition of carving and giving wooden love spoons as a courting gift dates back to the 16th century, when a man would carve his own for his sweetheart. Made from a single piece of wood, the ornately carved handle often tells a story with motifs of hearts, harps, Celtic knots, flowers and birds being popular images. Today, traditional and contemporary designs may be machine made, but they are still given as a tangible expression of love, to celebrate special occasions including births, birthdays, engagements and marriages. With the lingering taste of the leek and goat cheese roulade (roll) on my tongue and thoughts of handsomely carved love spoons in my head, I look forward to visiting Wales. I am ready for this “land of song” filled with castles, clog dancing, poetry contests, harp music, and of course, love spoons and leeks.