When Wales is mention there are a few things that may first come to mind, rugby, red dragons, rolling fields or even sheep but for many the first thought will be that fragrant member of the onion family, the leek. Despite the daffodil being the national flower, it would seem that the leek still takes centre stage when it comes to patriotic vegetation. On St. David’s Day you’ll likely see scores of people in Wales wearing leek badges on their lapels.
But the question is, why is this vegetable so important?
The leek first made its way over to Britannic shores with the arrival of the Roman Empire. They invaded in the year 43 CE and did so much to change the way the Britons lived, bringing with them irrigation, wine, plumbing and of course roads, some of which are still in use today. They also brought new fruits and vegetables, Roman cooking was all about big flavours and strong tastes but due to the climate there were only certain plants that would still grow here. Herbs like mint, rosemary and thyme were grown but the leek was even better, not only did it have a strong taste but also provided a meal in itself.
It continued to be an important food in society thanks to its reputation for having certain medicinal values. For example, it was renowned at the time for being a cure for the common cold, as well as helping with the pains of childbirth. As such it became a popular ingredient in the Welsh broth known as cawl. There were also more supernatural ties to this otherwise humble veg, if a young maiden were to place one under her pillow at night, she would see the features of her future partner in her dreams. It could keep away evil spirits and was even believed to offer protection from the ravages of battle and even from being struck by lightning.
There is a certain story, or legend if you will, that is considered the chief reason that the Welsh hold the leek so dear to their hearts. The story was immortalised in the 17th century by an English poet by the name of Michael Drayton and involves none other than St. David himself. Supposedly, in the 6th century CE he told the soldiers of Wales to wear leeks on their helmets when fighting their Saxon enemies in a battle that is said to have taken place in a field of leeks. It’s a scene that was later discussed in William Shakespeare’s Henry V, in this they refer to wearing the leek as an ancient tradition.
The story of St. David’s advice inspired the Welsh continuously after, during the Battle of Crecy in the 1500s the famed Welsh archers donned white and green, the colours of the leek. There are records of Tudor House Guards wearing leeks on St. David’s Day and today it features on the cap badge of every soldier in a Welsh regiment. St. David’s Day is on March 1st so get your leeks ready folks, if nothing else it may stave off a cold.