Wednesday 2 November 2011

Proper Northern leeks

They grow fantastic leeks up north. You see them in greengrocers and supermarkets: long fat sturdy stems, fresh green splayed tops and sometimes a little mud still clinging to the frill of roots at the base. Obviously grown locally, these always seem to me to be proper Northern leeks. With a white stem like a small tree trunk, these leeks were made to be sliced thickly into casseroles or simmered whole and served in white sauce.

'Southern' leeks from 2008
I, on the other hand, grow Southern leeks. Slender, pale green stalks that could be mistaken for an overgrown spring onion, they have an elusive, sweet, almost nutty flavour. They would be lost in a casserole: better steamed and dressed with a vinaigrette when warm, or hidden in a tart with blue cheese. It's not that I'm growing a dwarf variety, both the Musselburghs (a pretty standard leek) and Gigante d'Inverno (even without speaking Italian, I can tell that's not supposed to produce baby-sized crops) have turned out this way.

I enjoy growing them for the taste, but am always slightly embarrassed about their fragile skinniness, especially when the relatives make the journey down the M1 to stay, and on the customary allotment visit, end up staring at them, puzzled. Have I only just put them in the ground? Are they meant to be baby leeks? Or are they, indeed, spring onions after all?

This year's leeks
I do think that the presence of leek moth at our allotment has had an effect in previous years. These days, I cover the crop with Environmesh from July, when I plant out the pencil-thin seedlings, until now, when the leek moth caterpillars will have done their damage and settled down into their pupae.

Leeks eaten by leek moth can be saved by cutting the plant right down to the ground and waiting for it to grow again, hopefully unravaged. But they are never going to grow back to gargantuan proportions.

So I was beyond delighted last week when I removed the Environmesh to find the majority of the plants this year are indeed, if not actually Winter Giants, then definitely Proper Northern Leeks. It may just be a one-off, a happy combination of weather and well-nourished soil in that particular bed, but at least I now know that I don't have to settle for spindly leeks.   

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