Leeks – the vegetable of song

Leek and Potato Soup

3 cups potatoes,
washed and cubed in bite-size pieces
3 cups well washed, sliced leeks
(include the greens)
1 tbsp salt
¼ – ½ cup heavy cream
Simmer the vegetables in salted water until soft. Add cream and serve.

Leek and Potato Soup – may it sweeten your voice! PHOTO: CAROLYN BEST

By Carolyn Best

Pliny, the vaunted historian of the Roman Empire, wrote, “Leeks sweeten the voice.” And the Greek philosopher Aristotle attributed the clear singing of partridges to their fondness for the vegetable. First domesticated some 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia or Egypt, leeks were widely consumed in the ancient world. They are often depicted in Roman frescoes of feasts. The classical world was convinced that leeks improved the human voice. The Emperor Nero, whose notoriously poor public performances were much mocked by later Roman historians, ate so many leeks in trying to improve his mediocre singing talents that he became known as “the leek eater”.

In Wales, one finds again that curious intertwining of the leek and song. The small country, which has the plant as its national emblem, is known as the Land of Song and has had an outstanding heritage of vocal music for over a thousand years. In 1194, the chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis described Welsh singing in his Descripto Cambriae (Description of Wales): “In their musical concerts they do not sing in unison like the inhabitants of other countries, but in many different parts; so that in a company of singers, which one very frequently meets with in Wales, you will hear as many different parts and voices as there are performers, who all at length unite … and, what is still more wonderful, the children, even from their infancy, sing in the same manner.” Still today, most Welsh towns and villages have their own choirs. Typical of their songs are those of dramatic narratives, heart touching and imbued with melancholy.

Legend tells that leeks have been the national symbol of Wales since 632, when an army led by King Cadwallon of Gwynned (North Wales) wrapped leeks around their helmets before defeating the Northumbrians at the Battle of Hadfield Chase. An even earlier tale narrates that the nation’s patron Saint David (died 589) ordered the soldiers of the Welsh armies to wear leeks as they fought against an army of pagan Saxon invaders.

But the Welsh affinity for the leek predates Christian time. Except for Ireland, the Roman invasion of western Europe spelled the termination of Celtic culture, which fell first in France and then in Britain. Wales, the most westward land conquered by the Romans, was the last to succumb. The Druids, the learned class of the Celts – priests, poets, healers, judges, minstrels – held the leek in greatest esteem. In the lore of their sages, the leek conferred protection against wounds in battle. Its use for this purpose passed down through the ages in Welsh history.

In a later version of the Cadwallon story, the incident took place at the Battle of Crecy in 1346, when Welsh archers fought in the army of Edward III. This variant is referenced by the Welsh captain Fluellen in Shakespeare’s Henry V: “Your grandfather of famous memory, an’t please your majesty, and your great-uncle Edward the Black Prince of Wales, as I have read in the chronicles, fought a most brave battle here in France. . .the Welshmen did good service in a garden where leeks did grow, wearing leeks in their Monmouth caps.”

Shakespeare’s Welsh characters refer to leeks on several other occasions in this play, a clear indication that by 1599, when Henry V was written, the English also identified them with Wales.

Down through the ages, from Druidic heritage when members of the plant kingdom – trees, flowers, fruits, vegetables – were worshipped and used for occult purposes, the leek has remained the significant symbol of Wales. The curious connection – they sing, and they eat leeks.

Carolyn Best is the former proprietor/chef of The Pantry vegetarian tearoom, and a regular Glebe Report contributor on food.

Grandma Lindsay’s special pie crust

Crystal Maitland’s grandmother made a wonderful apple pie, made with wheat germ and no added sugar.   Photo: Crystal Maitland

By Marisa Romano

On March 14, on the cusp of the call by public health officials for social distancing, nerds and social activists alike celebrated one last time before closing their doors to friendly gatherings and opening Zoom connections instead. They rummaged through time-worn recipe boxes to dig out the one for the best pastry crust recipe ever. The occasion? The celebration of “pi.”

Back in 2009, the United States proclamed March 14 – or 3/14 in the month/day format – as National  π (Pi) Day in celebration of one of the wonders of mathematics: the number that describes the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. It starts with 3.14 and continues with digits that go on forever!

So while some nerds celebrate the annual event by competing to see who can recall the most digits in Pi, others turn to the kitchen in hopes of capturing the blue ribbon for the best pie in town.

The Pie Day frenzy has spread, and social activists have recently stepped forward with their own P.I.E., a commitment to Public, Intentional and Explicit celebration of diverse genders and sexualities in communities across Canada. It’s a chance to honour the full inclusion of LGBTQ2SIA+ people in National Affirming/PIE  Day. Starting last year, many compete in the kitchen for blue ribbons on March 14, spreading P.I.E. love.

Although celebrations had a sombre tone this year because of COVID-19, some keeners still baked pies. Glebite Crystal Maitland was one of them.

She came to my door with one of her apple pies with an unusual pastry, her grandma’s special recipe. Her other pies were served in celebration of P.I.E. day at Glebe St. James United Church the next day.

The nutty taste of the thin crumbly crust is what spells “pie” for Maitland. It reminds her of the weekend dinners at Grandma and Grandpa Lindsay’s home in Alberta where she grew up. It was “a grand family affair around a big multi-leaved oval dining room table,” she recalls. “Almost without fail, dinner would be finished off with pie – usually apple or rhubarb.”

Grandma Lindsay’s special crust calls for wheat germ, an unusual ingredient for such an old recipe. I asked if her grandma embraced the hippy movement that introduced new foods into the North American diet in the 1960s and 1970s. “Grandma was a bit of a health-nut, but not a hippy,” chuckled Maitland. “She was much more traditional than that. But there was lecithin added to any gravy to emulsify the fat and brewer’s yeast mixed into the morning breakfast orange juice. And wheat germ in anything that wheat germ can be added to.”

For the sugarless filling, Maitland uses a selection of apple varieties. “Some that turn more quickly to sauce and some that keep their form a bit better,” she explains. “I confess that no two pies have the same apples in them, but I always like to add Russets when they are in season.  They have a lovely flavour when baked.”

The apple blend brings a complex taste enriched by a generous sprinkle of cinnamon. The sweetest variety that Maitland added to her pie gave the filling all the sweetness required with no need for extra sugars.

We shared the pie around the table, the last affair before social distancing. Before she left, she agreed to my request to share Grandma Lindsay recipe with the readers of the Glebe Report. Now that we are all cooped up with more time to spend in the kitchen, we may be inclined to try it.

Marisa Romano is a foodie and scientist with a sense of adventure who appreciates interesting and nutritious foods that bring people together.

Vegetable Oil Wheat-Germ Pie Crust

(or, as on Maitland’s handwritten notes reported,
“Grandma’s Pie Crust”)

Makes one two-crust pie.
Mix with a fork:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup wheat germ
1tsp salt

Add the following, blending until mixed, but not over working:
1/3 cup cold water
1/2 cup+ vegetable oil (enough to make the crust come together.
Usually I find it is closer to 2/3 of a cup. I usually use canola oil).

Split in half and roll out between two pieces of waxed paper. Remove top sheet of waxed paper and use bottom sheet to transfer to pie plate.

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