Wild vine leeks…April 5, 2010
I sit in a row of vines, stick in hand, digging furiously in the soil. Every few minutes I tug on the green leaves of the plant I’m trying to dislodge hoping it suddenly pulls out of the damp earth with ease. One of the side benefits of living on an organically maintained vineyard is all the wild and edible plants that grow in the fields. It’s become a new family tradition that each Easter weekend, in all types of weather, we, and any guests we might have, promenade through the vines in search of les poireaux des vignes.
These wild leeks start to poke up through ground in very early spring. Three years ago, in our first season of being fully organic, Raphael pointed them out to me during a walk in the vines. Their green leaves resemble those of their cultivated cousin but grow sporadically in the mix of wild grass, dandelions, and weeds that line the vines in spring. The vegetable is native to vineyard regions and, more specifically, vines which grow in limestone soil as do ours but due to the use of weed killer, they rarely have the opportunity to flourish. They are also found near trees in medows and fields of vineyard regions.
Since discovering these vine leeks, each spring I become obsessed with digging up as many as possible for our meals. Maybe it’s due to growing up in a suburb where gardens and fresh vegetables were an anomaly, but the idea of ‘living off the land’ appeals to me. Each year more and more leeks push up through the ground not just in the vine fields but by the water source, on the pathways, and near the girl’s swing set. True farm kids, my daughters have developed an eye for spotting a leek amidst the mass of weeds. They delight in pointing them out to me and ‘helping’ by digging them up. The problem is, their impatience has them pulling forcefully on the leaves until they break off, leaving the best part in the ground.
Vine leeks graw deep under the soil and are frequently entwined in the roots of weeds or stuck under stones. Some patience and a lot of digging is necessary to free them. It can take hours to gather a handful.
I had never eaten a leek, either cultivated or wild, before meeting Raphael. Since moving to France, I have become accustomed to eating average leeks which have a powerful taste resembling a mild onion. A vine leek has a milder taste, even slightly sweet. I actually prefer it to the others. But they are very small. The green leafy portion is mostly left uneaten. While not dangerous, it is corse and bitter. The tender white part that grows underground is best. But unlike the average leek, the cylinder white portion of a vine leek is shorter and ends in a bulb resembling an onion. The bulb is significantly small. Off of the bulbs, mixed in with the soil and the roots, are tiny bulbils which, I just learned, can be eaten as well. Although, left in the ground, they are the seed that will become new poireaux des vignes the following year.
How to cook a poireau de vigne or a vine leek:
They can be eaten uncooked but I wouldn’t recommend it. Raw, they have a powerfully bitter taste. Vine leeks are cooked in the same way as the cultivated leeks; remove the majority of the green leaf stems. (A small amount near the white can be left as it is more tender.) Cut off the roots with a bit of the bulb. You can save the tiny bulbils attached to the roots. They are best reserved in red vinegar and salt and can be used on salads which sounds great to me. Then chop the white part, which mostly consists of the bulb, into small pieces and wash well. The white is either steamed or boiled until soft. Drain and chill. Vine leeks are best eaten at room temperature with a drizzle of olive oil and pinch of salt.