In the Middle ages through the 18th century this time of year was often called “the starving spring.” The spring was the time of hopes, because you had eaten most of the winter stores, and all you could do was eke out the time to the early harvest on what could be scavenged from field and barn. The thrifty Thomas Tusser recommended in his “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry” that in March, “Now leekes are in season, for pottage full good, and spareth the the milchcow and purgeth the blood. These having, with peason for pottage in Lent, thou sparest both otemell and bread to be spent.” Wise counsel again, for both leeks and peas can fill up the belly in a most satisfying fashion. I have already offered a recipe for “Pease Porridge” last February, so this year I will offer one for leeks. This deceptively simple recipe is most interesting for its history, which shows that, ultimately, there is nothing new under the sun.
Take white of Lek and slyt hem, and do hem to seeth in wyne, oile and salt, roste brede and lay in dyssh and the sewe above and serue it forth.
TRANSLATION: Take white of Leeks and slit (slice) them, and put them to simmer in wine, oil and salt. Roast (toast) bread and lay in [a] dish, and [serve] the [broth and leeks] on top, and serve it forth.
REALIZATION: I told you it was simple! For a light meal for two people, thoroughly wash one large bundle of leeks to remove sand and grit. Slice off the root end to above the solid core; if the cut end shows all rings like an onion, you have cut enough. If you see a solid white core in the middle, take another slice. Now cut off the whole green end, about two inches above where the leek turns white. This is also a gradual process. If you have young tender leeks, and the vegetables do not resist when you slice, that’s enough. If you feel the slightest resistance, take additional slices of about ½ inch until the leeks feel tender, or you only have the white of the leek left. Cut the white of the leek lengthwise in half, then in quarters, , then in eighths, if you can do that safely without getting pieces of finger into the dish. Sauté the leeks in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil until limp, not brown. Add enough white wine or light broth to half-cover the leeks. Cover the pan and simmer on medium-low heat for about 20 minutes, or until very soft. Check often during the cooking process and add wine or broth to prevent the dish from cooking dry. Salt to taste with kosher salt, and serve over toasted slices of French bread.
Now for the history lesson. This recipe was found in a number of cookbooks, differing only slightly in content and style. It was characteristic of many medieval cookbooks that the same series of recipes was found in close proximity. For example, in The Forme of Cury” the recipe for “Slitte Soppes” was closely preceded by recipes for “Fennel in Soppes” and “Aquapatys” which were fennel bulb and garlic cloves, respectively, prepared in much the same way. In Ancient Cookery, from Ms. No. 344 in the Arundel Collection from about 1285, the three recipes were found directly next to each other, along with a number of other light soups like “Bruet of Egges to Pottage”, which was much like modern Chinese egg-flower soup. The recipes are very similar, but the recipe in Ancient Cookery recommends addition of “poudre marchand” [see glossary].
To justify my comment of “nothing new”, I will give another recipe for leeks attributed to Apicius, a Roman gourmet whose work was first written down in about the late fourth and early fifth century. Apicius wrote of “Porros” or leeks, as follows: “Select leeks and cook them with a fistful of salt in water and olive oil. Remove [from the water] and serve with olive oil, fish-pickle [see glossary], and unmixed wine.” Three similar recipes, separated by only a millennium in time.
Sewe: broth or juices from a cooked dish
Poudre marchand: “Marchand” is French for “shopkeeper”. Uncertain translation, but assumed to be “powdered spices of your choice”, or perhaps “whatever the spicer has on hand”
Fish-pickle: in the middle ages, called “garum” or “liquamen”. It was a fermented liquid condiment based on herring or anchovies. If your taste runs that way, use modern Vietnamese ngoc mai or nam pla to substitute. If your taste is not so adventurous, modern Worcestershire is also based on fish at its heart, but is many ingredients removed from its Vietnamese or Roman relatives.