Country & Garden: It's showtime... in the land of the rising leek

They are nurtured for nine months, fed brown ale and dried blood, and can win celebrity status. Not bad for a mutant onion.
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The Independent Culture
SHORTLY AFTER I moved to Northumberland, I was driving through the village with my next-door neighbour when I noticed a large group of people gathered outside the post office in the early autumn sunlight. The men were neatly turned out in blazers and grey flannels, the women looked smart in summer frocks. "Where are they off to?" I wondered, imagining a regimental reunion. "The World Leek Championships in Ashington," my neighbour said, matter of factly. "They always run a coach."

This is the time of year for vegetable and produce shows. You will find them in most parts of Britain. Tables laid out under canvas, classes listed in the catalogue and strictly and parenthetically defined: shallots (pear- shaped), carrots (stump), onion sets (flat). It is only in North East England, however, that the leek receives star-billing or, more often than not, a whole show entirely to itself. By the last weekend in September, the height of the season, it will be possible for me to visit two dozen such events without travelling more than 20 miles from my house. Some are grand, two-day affairs played out in Victorian Mechanic's Institutes or Masonic Halls. Others, more modest, are run from noon to 5pm on Sundays in lean-to garages at the back of suburban public houses.

The shows are organised by leek clubs, usually attached to a social club or pub. Most are run for fun, but in the former-coalfields of Durham and south-east Northumberland, where leek growing is taken very seriously indeed, the names of champion growers such as Paul Harrigan and Neil Armstrong are as familiar and revered as that of Pele in football, or Muhammad Ali in boxing, and the top prizes are the sort that used to feature in the final moments of Sale of the Century. Just getting into a club is an arduous process that can take up to three years.

My father worked for most of his life in Co Durham and the firm that employed him had a famous leek club. Dad once made the mistake of saying to a colleague that the pair of them might join it. The man looked at my father as if he had just suggested bowling down to London to sign up at The Garrick. "You don't join the leek club," he said when the shock had subsided, "you are chosen."

There are two classes of leek: "blanch", which are the size of broadswords and judged on length, and "pot", which are made like bodybuilders and judged by girth. Size, though, is not all that counts. The inspection panel is also looking for physical perfection. Holes or discolouration in the "flags" (the green part of the leek), blemishes on the "barrel" (white) or dirt in the "beard" (roots) all result in the deduction of vital fractions of an inch from the final measurement.

It is this which has, no doubt, contributed to the many tales that circulate this region of the fanatical growers, sitting up throughout the night to protect their precious charges in the build-up to a major show, and the cunning "nobblers", who will circumvent any security measure to send a well-aimed air-gun pellet through a rival's carefully tended "flags".

On show day, the prize specimens are lifted from their raised beds, where they have nestled for upward of nine months fed on a diet of manure, dried blood, brown ale or whatever other "secret" ingredient the grower favours. They are then washed and polished, their beards are combed, and they are transported, as gently as possible to the showplace. One legendary figure on the scene, a self-made millionaire, is said to take them wrapped in white towels on the back seat of his Rolls-Royce.

Faced with these chubby monsters, the uneducated tend to say: "Oh, but they can't taste very nice. Those huge vegetables never do." This is to miss the point entirely. These leeks may not taste as good as their smaller brethren, but an ordinary leek wouldn't win you a new three-piece suite or a holiday for two in Majorca. Besides, you would no more eat a prize leek than you would a racehorse that had just won the Derby. You let champion leeks go to seed. The seeds, which form in the bulbous pod that sprouts above the flags in spring, sell for up to pounds 10 each.

Not quite up there with the stud fees for thoroughbred Newmarket bloodstock, admittedly, but high enough for what is, after all, a mutant onion.