Wednesday, September 12, 2018
Edible wild leek bulbs
We were digging about in the garden the other day when we discovered a nice crop of leek bulbs on the roots of a Babington's leek (Allium ampeloprasum var. babingtonii). Leek bulbs form underground from the second year of growth of both Babington's and the ordinary garden leek. In the past they were part of the vegetable armoury for the gardener and allotment holder, but in recent times they seem to have sunk into obscurity. These bulbs are not formed in concentric rings like onions but have even white flesh all the way through like water chestnuts.
W.W. Weaver in his Heirloom Vegetable Gardening (Voyageur Press, Minneapolis, 2018) wrote: Leeks left in the ground to overwinter normally produce an epicurean delight the second year. This is known as the "leek bulb", small bulbs that form about the base of the leeks that are ready to bloom. Some of the bulbs can grow quite large, perhaps 1" in diameter, and make a perfect substitute for shallots. The longer the leeks are in the ground, the larger the leek bulbs become, and they can be further increased by breaking off the flower spikes.
In the Gardeners' Magazine (April 24, 1875. Page 536) someone named 'S.H.' wrote of leek bulbs "....the way to understand their real value is to stew them in gravy and eat the hot with butter and pepper."
Babington's leek as a wild plant is endemic to south west Britain and Ireland but is widely available in the nursery trade. The bulbs are quite mild tasting and, to me, somewhat of a cross between leek and garlic. We used those illustrated above to make leek and potato soup with 50% bulbs. It was very good. Here is the recipe:
10 or a dozen leek bulbs
The same amount of potato (unpeeled)
Salt and pepper
Unpeeled potatoes give a slightly earthy flavour to the soup.
METHOD Chop the vegetables and fry gently in butter without browning for 4 or 5 minutes. Put in a saucepan and add water (for two people, two mugfuls). Boil for about 25 minutes then process to a smooth texture in a blender or with a blending stick. Stir in some cream or crème fraîche to taste and adjust seasoning. Some vegetable stock powder will give a slightly deeper flavour.
In addition to its gastronomic and conservation interest, Babington's leek makes an interesting ornamental plant. Its flower heads rise on slender stalks to about 2 metres in height and carry a globular head mainly of bulbils with a few flowers scattered about on longer stalks. As they extend these tall stems look like long-necked birds and the developing heads move during the course of the day to different orientations as though searching for something. For their size these stalks are remarkably strong and never seem to get broken by summer winds.
The flower heads are composed of tightly packed bulbils each of which will produce a new plant.
Babington's leek is a winter green plant with leaves that appear above ground in December.