Leeks have always been thought of as an early spring vegetable. When we first opened the pub 20 years ago, we knew that they would be unusable by July because they would be woody in the middle. But with the blurring of the seasons since then, this no longer seems to be the case: these days they are available, and can be worth eating, for most of the year.
“Now leeks are in season, for pottage full good” comes from the March part of Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry by Thomas Tusser, published in 1573 (an extended remix of his 1557 hit A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie). It is interesting to note that leeks were associated with soup or pottage even back then. Tusser goes on to mention an association between leeks and Lent (in March this year).
Tusser was born in Essex in the early 16th century, and is described as a poet farmer. I don’t mean to denigrate our farmers, but this seems to be an unlikely pairing. Most farmers I know tend to be fairly practical types who are unlikely to start quoting from a slim volume of verse hidden in their back pocket. Tusser was also a chorister at St Paul’s, attended Eton and Cambridge and lived an interesting life, rarely staying in the same place for long.
His work is a great historical source on the life of a farmer or smallholder in the 16th century. In it he describes the whole year out in the fields, and it is a rare insight into the agrarian world at this time. It offers sound advice – written in rhyming couplets – on what you should be doing in the field and at home at certain times of the year. It is essentially an almanac written in poetic form.
The advice he gives includes shooting at crows with a bow and arrow just after planting seed. He recommends when to buy and sell animals as well as advising the picking of fruit at the waning of the moon.
It struck me on reading his poem how far removed we are now from the food we eat and what is going on in the fields around us. In Britain, I guess this started with the urbanisation of our population in the 18th and 19th centuries.
To add to this, the past 20 years have seen such an increase in the number of restaurants and fast food outlets that I wonder if many people actually cook at home at all. Fast food doesn’t just mean that the food arrives quickly, but there is also no washing up or cleaning that goes along with it. Last Friday night I was surprised to see the long queues outside all the fast food places in my town.
The soup recipe below can be ready in about 10 minutes and you will have time to wash up as you go along. Leeks are best cooked quickly to preserve their flavour and colour; grated old crop potatoes will cook quickly and thicken the soup.
Using milk rather than having to make stock further accelerates the process, and if you follow the recipe I think you will see that it is in no way a compromise to work fast. If anything the speed keeps everything green, fresh and sappy.
In fact, I think even Thomas Tusser would approve – although you might have to explain to him what a potato was first, as he died in 1580, six years before they first arrived here from Virginia.