The labels given to everyday food crops seem unimportant, mundane, when, as gardeners, what we really want to know is how to grow them; yet, our own cultural histories are embedded in their naming and their use. Leeks have had a significant cultural presence in our lives, over time. They are synonymous with a northern British working class culture of prize leek cultivation; a regionally inflected cultural memory, of the man, his whippet and his leek patch, reflected in my childhood experiences of a family allotment on Tyneside, during the 60s and 70s. I remember winter meals of steamed leek pudding, with gravy and potatoes; of bacon broth, full of leeks, carrots, potato, split peas, all the veg nurtured by our collective labour: I sense a recipe developing, a cultural history stewing….
It’s known that the Romans brought leeks to the British Isles along with onions, brassicas such as turnips and kale, lettuce, artichokes and Asparagus. Excavations at Fishbourne Palace in Sussex, have suggested a sophisticated understanding of cultivation techniques, transposed from Italy and adapted to the British climate.
We know leeks were grown during the medieval period because of their importance in the kitchen gardens of monasteries, in particular, records kept by Benedictine Monasteries. The Rule of St Benedict prescribed a well-ordered life with the day divided into specified activities, including working in the gardens, which were, of necessity, productive as they grew much of the food for the monastic community.
Another important source as evidence for cultivation of vegetables is found in an early 9th century plan for an idealised monastery, the St Gall Plan (815-20); this shows the layout of the different gardens needed by the monastic community. The gardens’ ground plan covers approximately 3 acres: south of the refectory, but within easy distance, is a large square vegetable garden, with 18 beds individually named, arranged in neat rows, onions, garlic, leeks and shallots allocated a bed each. Jenny Uglow points to the lack of records of British monastic life before the Conquest, but monastery culture would have been similar to that of Europe, so the St Gall plan is indicative of what might have been grown in British monastic gardens before 1066 (Uglow; 21).
Monastic kitchen gardens during the 10th century were mainly planted out with Alliums – leeks, onions and garlic – alongside peas, evidence of which was found at Bede’s Monastery at Jarrow, and an early ancestor of the broad bean, or ‘bene’. The medieval kitchen garden was known as the ‘curtilage’ or as the ‘leac-garth’ or leac-tun, from ‘leac’, an Anglo-Saxon root meaning plant or herb and garth, geard, zeard or tun (yard or enclosure) (Susan Campbell, 2005: 101). Maggie Campbell-Culver, in ‘The Origin of Plants’, explains how [l]eeks were so fundamental to the good life that kitchen gardens of all descriptions were often called leac-garths, in the same way as we sometimes cultivate our ‘cabbage patch’ (Campbell-Culver, 2001: 42).
Alexander Neckam, Augustinian abbot at Cirencester, teacher at the universities of Oxford and Paris, wrote his De Naturis Rerum during the late 1100s, in which he listed both existing plants in cultivation in Britain, alongside recent newcomers. His list of those plants that [t]he garden should be adorned with, included vegetables, alongside herbs and aromatic flowers, but dominated by alliums: There should also be planted beds with onions, leeks, garlick, pumpkins, and shallots (quoted in Uglow, 2004: 32). Piers Plowman’s ‘Vision’ (late 1300s) describes the harvest from his croft as peas, beans, leeks, parsley and shallots, alongside ‘chiboles [small onions] and chervils’ (Uglow, 2004: 49).
From Archaeological excavations of deserted medieval villages we have some idea of their layout and of the existence of early versions of the cottage garden:
At the back […] lay another enclosed garth, a long rectangular plot, stoutly protected against wandering horses, cattle, sheep and geese with ditches and wooden palings, and prickly hedges of thorn and holly. Inside the small patches were a jumble of herbs, vegetables and flowers […] villagers grew cabbage, kale, onions and garlic and leeks (by far the favourite, tastiest, most fragrant vegetable) (Uglow, 2004: 49).
Kitchen gardens were also important to large landowners, as they were needed to feed their servants, just as monastery gardens fed the monastic community. Alliums continued to be central to vegetable cultivation, as indicated by the seeds ordered for the royal palace at Rotherhithe in 1354, which included 12 pounds each of onion and leek seed (Uglow, 2004: 50).
My conclusion? That my love of leeks is not accidental, but culturally inspired, nurtured through my mother’s cooking, my desire to fill our allotment with as many varieties as I can muster, an attempt to reproduce the vegetable plantings of my childhood. Such an impossibility now inspires my first attempts at growing heritage leeks for seed saving, rediscovering old skills & vegetable varieties to invigorate my very own leac-garth.
Susan Campbell (2005) A History of Kitchen Gardening, Frances Lincoln; London.
Maggie Campbell-Culver (2001) The Origin of Plants, Headline Books; London.
Jenny Uglow (2004) A Little History of British Gardening, Chatto & Windus; London.