A Cook's Garden
Europe plugs its own leeks
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 1:59 PM
Before the Scots came to call oatmeal gruel "porridge," the word meant leek soup, derived from "porrum," the Latin word for leek. "Porrum" is also the source of the French words "potage" (soup) and "potager" (kitchen garden).
In winter there is scarcely a European garden without a blue-green stand of leeks, and in the northeast of England amateur leek-growers compete for big prizes. Americans, for whom leeks are a gourmet oddity, have some catching up to do.
Until the 1990s all leeks were open-pollinated (OP) varieties, not proprietary F1 hybrids with corporate ownership. New methods have made hybridizing them possible, so now many seed catalogues offer both. Their descriptions make interesting reading. The new hybrids are promoted as vigorous, high-yielding, disease-resistant, upright, straight and - above all - uniform, since uniformity is what commercial growers, packers and marketers demand. OP varieties are described as adaptable, hardy, tender and mild, with good flavor - all qualities that appeal to small or home growers.
I don't care if my leeks are uniform. I like a mix of small and big. That said, we did grow a hybrid called Upton (now replaced with Megaton) that showed admirable vigor at our farm and home garden. But we're glad that we have a choice. With OP crops you can select and save seed to adapt a variety to your own soil. Furthermore, OP crops can be improved just as well as F1 hybrids can. Unfortunately, that is not the way the industry is heading.
Meanwhile, all is not well across the Big Pond. According to rules of the European Union, only seeds prescribed by national lists posted by member countries can be sold. It is argued that this is necessary to protect the integrity of the seeds, but in fact it favors companies that can afford to register a variety and maintain it according to EU standards.
A small farmer would be able to grow leeks (or any crop) from seeds passed down from his Aunt Betty, which he had selected and adapted to his region, but he could not sell them to another farmer who might benefit from his work.
Granted, the current lists do contain OP varieties, some of them heirlooms, and there are also seed-swapping organizations that growers can use. One clever seed company in the United Kingdom called Real Seeds gets around the regs with a buying club in which part of seeds' purchase price pays for membership. Still, many old varieties will go extinct from lack of support, thus diminishing the gene pool for the world's food supply.
I'm grateful that rules this stringent and self-serving have not spread to the United States. But the worldwide trend is still toward fewer varieties in commerce, controlled by a small number of global companies.
These are my thoughts as I stir a creamy leek soup on a cold winter day. The leek may not yet hold a place of honor in this country, but maybe we can secure it a better future.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of "The Garden Primer."