Nothing says Saint David’s Day like accessorizing with leeks.
At least to the Welsh, who don an allium boutonnière every March 1, the feast day of their patron saint. The precise root of this practice is mired in myth, although it seems that this cousin to the onion was elevated to both sartorial splendor and national emblem back in the sixth century during a battle against the Saxons that took place in, of all places, a leek field. David—their patron saint, not LC’s beloved saint and publisher—reputedly ordered troops to identify themselves by affixing the oniony stalk to their helmets. They emerged victorious. Ever since, this saint’s feast day has meant leeks to the Welsh—whereas to those of us at LeitesCulinaria.com, it means a day spent reminding our David that no, the holiday’s not for him, and by the way, he’d better watch himself if he ever hopes to be canonized.
Donning a leek corsage as an act of patriotism has persisted throughout the centuries, meriting a mention or two in Henry V and, more recently, sprouting into veggie contests on this day at Welsh grammar schools. The glory goes to the lad sporting the, ahem, longest leek. (We’re not making this up. We swear.) Victory, however, seems a dubious honor, given that the winner is prodded to eat the allium. Nothing says “champ” like the crunch of gritty sand in a raw leek, right? (This assumes he’s not given the option of halving the stalk, soaking it in cold water till the dirt sifts to the bottom of the bowl, then sautéing it slowly with a pat of butter and a sprinkle of nutmeg before wolfing it down.) We imagine the culmination of the ritual must offer more than a little comfort to the second-place schoolboy, who, though deemed inadequate in the length department, will at least have better breath, not to mention a bit of greenery of his own to contemplate for dinner.
Lifelong eater and devoted Midwesterner, Erin is a recent transplant to Boston, and she just can’t understand the mayo-versus-butter on lobster rolls debate. It’s lobster, right? What else matters? Erin is an aspiring food writer, and when she’s not busy drinking from the font of wisdom that is the Leite’s Culinaria editorial staff, she’s studying food culture, anthropology, and history at Boston University for her Master’s degree in Gastronomy. (Yes, that’s totally a real thing.) Though most of her interests fall squarely in the culinary category, she also appreciates pretty things and traveling, especially if there’s eating involved.
As always, another great article, Erin! I had no idea there was such a holiday, but count me in!
Thanks, Katy! Any excuse to wear a vegetable, right?
LOVE leeks but we don’t get fresh local leeks until Fall because they do not overwinter here. However, sometimes we can get our hands on some real beauties (even in the depths of winter)! Regardless, we always have leeks in the fridge. Some of our favourite recipes include Roasted Potato and Leek Soup with Pancetta, Leek Gratin, Drunken Leeks and we love them in Chicken Pot Pie. We also love them simply grilled – the charred bits are wonderful.
Drunken Leeks? One can’t dangle that out there without divulging a recipe, Brenda. May I request it?
Mmm. Grilled leeks sound wonderful! You’re making me anxious for nice weather, not to mention the day I move out of a tiny fourth-floor city apartment and can do some grilling of my own.
Wonderful post. I love food history like this, and have never heard of St. David or the story involving Wales and leeks. Sounds like a great tradition to me. Glad to know it’s still celebrated. Now off to buy a leek to affix to my hat!
Thanks, Charles. Much appreciated!
I Like my leeks baked with butter and garlic.
Sorry, just not a big fan of nutmeg on my leeks.
Two years ago I grew really big leeks in my garden, guess I should try again this year.
Butter and garlic–can’t go wrong there! And as those Welsh schoolboys could surely tell you, there’s more than one way to eat a leek. Hope your gardening adventures go well this year.
I tried something different with leeks today – sliced and softened in some oil and butter with a crushed dried piri-piri or bird’s eye chilli tossed in. Chilli Kick Leeks! And they were lovely.
As the first Welsh person to comment on Dydd Dewi Sant, diolch yn fawr! Though the photo looks as if it heralds from the 1950s so I wouldn’t like your readers to get the impression that this is the kind of merry bunch they’d be likely to run into on the streets of Wales today! We even have electricity now!
In my school days, 60s and 70s, the girls wore daffodils (national flower of Wales), and the boys wore leeks, and it was only the show-offs who tried eating them raw at play-time. And, of course, us girls wore our national costumes too: welsh plaid shawls, lace aprons and a tall black hat.
As nice as leeks can be, I’m sure the other ‘St David’ would appreciate something sweeter: Welshcakes or Bara Brith. I’ve made mine already and am about to astonish my French neighbours with them. I say ‘astonish’ not only because the cakes and bread will be unknown to them but because the French seem to require advance written notice in triplicate to call on one another. But they humour me – l’etrangere!
Thanks for sharing your memories, Lynne! I saw the first sign of daffodils poking through the still-wintry ground today. They must have known what day it is. Hope your neighbors were properly impressed by your sweets–they sound lovely.