Carol Ann Sayle
In Turin, Italy, a few years ago, as "delegates" to Slow Food's international conference, Terra Madre, we also visited the adjacent Salone del Gusto. Housed in a former Fiat factory (with a test track on the roof!) the salon featured Italy's favorite foods—seemingly all kinds of cheeses and sausages—but the item that caught my eye was a pile of leeks, "porros," in Italian. The leeks were slender and very long, with their pointy green leaves intact, indicating freshness, but they were notable (to me) for their extremely long, blanched shanks.
My Spanish language skills were no help with the Italians, and so I couldn't ask about the growing of leeks with such long shanks—averaging a foot long. But in my heart I already knew the answer. Their soil.
Few folks expect us to grow leeks in Texas, but we have grown them for many years.
The soil those leeks grew in had to be deep and loose, not in any way similar to the "concrete" soil of Austin, Texas. Few folks expect us to grow leeks in Texas, but we have grown them for many years. It is an active passion of mine—like anything we're not expected to grow. Like fava beans, parsnips, mache, and rhubarb. We grow all of those items, and much more, plus the tomatoes, cilantro, and chiles that are expected.
Since being awestruck over those porros, I have each year attempted to figure out a tool that we could use to poke a hole deep enough through our permanently raised beds' soil, so that the leeks would have the longest blanched shanks possible. Finally, last year, in the clutter of our tool barn, I stumbled on a pointed metal rod with a red plastic two-handed handle on one end. It served us years ago, hooked up to a liquid fertilizer container and a water hose, to root feed our strawberry plants.
We got over that mind-numbing activity after one season, and the tool sat in a corner sulkily rusting until it morphed into the leek planter. Voilà, the pointed end had no difficulty entering our soil, and leaning on the handle forced the rod as deeply into the dirt as I desired.
Last year's porros had shanks between six and eight inches long. The chefs and serious cooks loved them. Those porros were actually our "multiplying" leeks, whose seedlings we dig each fall from our on-farm "leek nursery." We can also grow them from the black seeds in their flowers. The only problem with them is that they like to multiply in the field before they get to a nice fat diameter, so we usually sell them no wider than an inch or inch and a half. But regardless of that, they are capable of having a desirable length.
Carol Ann Sayle
Encouraged by the Italian examples, and feeling adventuresome, I ordered official porros seed from Bavicchi, an Italian Seed Company (via its New Mexico distributor). The seeds came with instructions in Italian, but nothing was said about the soil/"terreno." So after working in a lot of our compost and amending with gypsum and sulfur to achieve quasi-loose soil, we used our tool to poke 12-inch holes. Our intern Marissa, showing off her mechanical talent, added a foot rest to the tube for that extra push into the soil. Then into the holes we dropped the thin seedlings we grew in flats in the greenhouse.
We employed a long twig to twiddle the roots to the bottom of the deep holes, leaving only the tiny tips of the leaves poking out. Then we watered them ever so gently, letting the water set the roots in the earth. As we water and cultivate over the next month, soil will slowly enter the holes and create dark chambers for the blanching operation.
In a few months, we'll dig our porros with a spading fork, using great care to not slice into the shanks or otherwise compromise this most delicious part of a leek. We'll rinse and bunch the treasures, and advise our farm stand customers on cleaning them, and encourage them to eat the luxurious roots too, as they are full of nutrients. And since the leeks will be so fresh, we'll encourage them to eat the light green part of the shank too, and freeze the leaves for stocks.
I hope our folks bring tall bags with them, as these porros are going to be fantastically long! If we did it right of course. If impossibly loose soil isn't the Italian secret. After all, the Salone del Gusto showcased extraordinary products, the best Italy offers. Maybe the featured porros were not representative of Italy's common specimens, which are perhaps grown in tight soils—but instead, porros to brag about....