Sunday, October 7, 2018

Poireaux – Leeks. The Leek in French Cuisine.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman 


Poireau and Asperge du Pauvre – The leek.
Poireau is pronounced pwa-roe and Poireaux the plural sounds the same.
Poireau Sauvage, Poireau d'Été and Aillet - The wild leek.

After potatoes and rice, the tasty leek is one of the top five vegetables in French cuisine; it is a member of the garlic and onion family with a taste that is much milder than both of them.  That mild but clear flavor will not compete with the central part of a dish, and so leeks are often chosen as the perfect accompaniment.  And, while leeks are usually cooked they may be thinly sliced when raw and added to salads or an omelet; they may also be served as a leek vinaigrette or as a Carpaccio de Poireaux, a leek Carpaccio. 
The Ancient Egyptians were the first to enjoy leeks as cultivated vegetables and left carvings, pictures and dried leeks that were found in archeological excavations.  The Greeks who occupied France circa 600 B. C.E. and founded the port of Marseilles (as the Greek colony of Massalia) would have been the first to bring leeks to France, as they were a favored vegetable in the Ancient Greek kitchen.

The leek’s flower.

From the Greeks onwards leeks were in French cuisine and are hold an important place in recipes in France’s earliest printed French cookbook, entitled Le Cuisinier François, the French Cook.  That cookbook was written around 1650 by La Varenne (François Pierre de) (1618 – 1678).   
Leeks on French Menus:

Croustade de Coquilles St Jacques à la Crème de Poireaux et au Safran – A hollowed out loaf of bread filled with a cream of leek soup with king scallops flavored with saffron.  (A croustade is also the name for the French take on the Italian Bruschetta where grilled vegetables or grilled chicken liver may be served on toast).

A leek and potato soup with bacon bits.
Dos d’Églefin Sur sa Fondue de Poireaux, Sauce Crème Ciboulette - A thick cut from a haddock, the fish, served on a bed of wild leeks with a cream of chives sauce.  For fish “dos" is a cut from the back and considered the tastiest part.  The bed of leeks in this menu listing is called a fondue with the word coming from "fondre" meaning warming and melting and for vegetables that means very well cooked, a pulp.  Cheese and meat fondues while utilizing very different cooking techniques also emphasize melting.

Flamiche aux Poireaux et Maroilles Gratinée et Salade - Flamiche is a traditional leek and sweet cream pie with a recipe that originated in the region of Picardie; here it is served Gratinée, browned, with the help of the Maroilles cow’s milk cheese and accompanied by a salad.  Flamiches are now on menus all over Northern France where inventive chefs create their own versions with other ingredients.  The Maroilles is an AOP cheese and also from Picardie; it has a slightly sweet and lightly salty taste with a creamy texture and is famed for its strong smell.  (The region of Picardie was merged with the region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais on 1-1-2016 and became the new super-region of Hauts de France).

Joue de Bœuf Braisée, Polenta au Café et Poireaux Grilles – Braised beef cheeks served with coffee flavored polenta and grilled leeks.  Beef cheeks will have been slowly cooked until tender; they are a French comfort food.
Leeks and thyme
Le Lapin du Bois de Boulle Rôti, Poireaux Nouveaux, Pommes Soufflées, Sauce d’une Blanquette - Rabbit from the Bois de Boulle farm served with young leeks and souffle potatoes with a sauce blanquette.  A blanquette is a creamy stew prepared with white meats including rabbit; here the sauce comes from a blanquette.  When a chef believes the restaurant’s patrons will recognize a source of excellent produce the name of the supplier is often added to the menu.  The Bois de Boulle farm in this menu listing is close to the fishing port and vacation town of La Turballe on France’s Atlantic coast in the department of Loire-Atlantique.  It is a family owned farm with an excellent reputation for farm-raised food including rabbits, free-range poultry and organic eggs.  The chef has apparently checked them out and expects his patrons to have heard about them. 
Loup et Poireaux Sauvages, Mousseline de Panais European sea bass prepared with wild leeks and served with a parsnip moose.  Wild leeks have a sweet but gentle garlic and onion taste.  (The word mousseline comes from the material muslin and muslin has very fine holes; it was used as a sieve before fine metal sieves became available and from that cooking technique came the word moose).

Seared Wolf fish, celery root and leek purée.
Omelette à l'Aillet – An omelet with wild leeks.  Aillet is the southern French name for wild leeks.
Velouté de Poireaux –A velvety leek soup.

Wild leeks.
In the supermarkets and on some menus you may see: Poireaux de Créances, IGP, Label Rouge - These are France’s most highly rated leeks and they grow alongside France's equally highly rated Carottes de Créances IGP red label carrots.  The town of Créances is close to the Atlantic coast in the department of Manche in Normandie; here, from the 11th-century until the French revolution vegetables were cultivated in this area by the monks of the nearby Essay Abbey.  Today independent farmers, produce a wide variety of high-quality vegetables on the Créances, which is also the name of the local dunes. The salt air, sandy soil, and the seaweed mulch the farmers use are responsible for the excellent taste of their vegetables.

A French chef told me that many European cooks just chop off the green part of a leek and throw it in the garbage, but French chefs do not do that.  The green part of the leek is bitter, but that’s if you take a large bite.  The green center when added to soups, stews and sauces will add beautiful flavors and so in French cuisine it is usually treated as a herb.  The white part of the leek is the part most usually seen when cooked, and it is white because it grows under the earth where no chlorophyll can change it to green.  White asparagus, for the same reason, differs from green asparagus because it is picked while still covered with earth and not exposed to the light.  Leeks and asparagus are often part of the same soup or tart and the green center of young leeks may also be cooked like asparagus.

Leek and asparagus vinaigrette.
Cooking the green part of leeks like asparagus raised a question neither the chef in this story nor anyone else, at the time, knew how to answer.  Why is one of a leek’s alternate French names the Asperge du Pauvre, the asparagus of the poor?  That name is not on any menu that I have seen; who would order a dish called the Poor Man's Asparagus?
Much later, I asked a French friend, who knows a great deal about French cuisine the source of the name “the asparagus of the poor.”  He pointed out that both leeks and asparagus will be on restaurant menus in one form or another but with very different prices and therein lies the origin of the name.  Since the leek is a great deal cheaper than asparagus it was probably awarded that nickname when it was chosen over the upscale and expensive asparagus.
Leeks in the languages of France’s neighbors:
(Catalan – porro), (Dutch - prei), (German - lauch), (Italian - porro), (Spanish  - puerro, porro), (Latin - allium ampeloprasum var. porrum)
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Bryan G Newman

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