Bringing the Babingtons Home for Tea

Babington leeks
Babington leeks in late summer
I had my first harvest of Babington leeks yesterday. This wild perennial leek is Allium ampeloprasum var. babingtonii, named after Charles Cardale Babington, who lived at the same time as Charles Darwin. It is one of many closely related perennial leeks: amongst them being elephant garlic A. ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum, kurrat or Egyptian leek A. ampeloprasum var. kurrat and pearl onion A. ampeloprasum var. sectivum. Most of them reproduce by seeds rather than the topset bulbils of Babington leek.

I'd read that the leeks (at at least 2-3 years old) are harvested from late autumn to spring but the new growth on mine didn't emerge until mid-winter and the white stems looked too short to harvest until now. They still look rather short but I want to use a good few of the leeks before they throw up a tough flower stalk in late spring. (In summer the green topset bulbils can be used and when the flower stalk dies down you can dig up and store the bulbs.)

The usual advice is to slice the leek off at ground-level when harvesting, leaving the distinctly bulbous portion near the roots to regrow. I'd planted the original leek bulbils about 2cm below the surface in autumn but found during the following winter that they had pulled themselves deeper into the ground - to about 10cm. (I learnt on Twitter that they do this by means of 'contractile roots'. Amazing!) So to get a longer shank I dug down a little way to the bulb and sliced the leek off just above it.

Underground bulb of Babington leek

Harvested Babington leeks

I expect one can plant even deeper to get longer shanks but digging further down to slice them off would be time-consuming. A better strategy would probably be a fairly deep mulch or ground-cover. I haven't got around to mulching my leeks and have left them in rather bare ground whilst they wait for a camomile ground-cover to establish itself around them. The camomile was chosen for its anti-fungal properties in the hope that it might guard against leek rust. But it is the Treneague form, very ground-hugging, and I'm wondering now whether a slightly taller plant, perhaps the species Chamaemelum nobile, might be better for promoting longer white stems on the leeks.

Or a different approach... if the leeks are happy growing closer together (and I think they would be) I could have lots of plants in a small area and could afford to pull whole plants up when they are old enough to harvest. In which case planting deeper makes more sense and it would be easy to pop a bulbil into the hole left behind when a leek is pulled up.

Having harvested, what to do with them?  The leek is a very versatile vegetable - leek recipes are truly abundant. But Babington leek tastes of both leek and garlic so I decided to substitute it for both leek and garlic. I used this Jamie Oliver recipe (forum post 6, second recipe) for braised leeks with garlic and thyme as a starting point, where the vegetables and herbs are sautéed in butter in a frying pan and then simmered in wine and stock in the oven. I scribbled down the recipe and then - gave it to the cook! I'll come clean - this blog rather belies the fact that Stew, my husband, does most of the cooking in our house! It just doesn't seem very fair to ask him to do experimental cooking with the unusual vegetables I insist on growing. But a leek is a leek and he was very accommodating.

Chopped Babington leek

Our thyme wasn't plentiful so he used some rosemary instead, along with eight leeks rather than four - as they were small - no garlic, and rather less wine, stock and butter than in the recipe.

Braised babington leek and rosemary in wine with spaghetti

We ate it with wholemeal spaghetti and Parmesan cheese (washed down with more of the wine). Mmmm!

A word of caution - don't cook with Babington leeks if you don't like the smell of spring woodlands when the lovely wild garlic is out! That's what the house smelled like whilst the dish was being made. The leeks didn't have quite the same sweetness as biennial leeks but the garlic flavour was delicious and the meal seemed very vibrant and healthy.

Can anyone tell me if kurrat tastes of garlic too? I'm interested now in growing a variety of perennial wild leeks with a variety of flavours and, ideally, a variety of harvest times.

N.B. I sell a range of perennial vegetable plants on my website.