Leek and Potato Soup is such a classic dish that we all imagine it has always been there. Whether as a velvety puree of potato, leek, onion and cream or as a broth with a medley of component veggies in it is firm favourite. Where did it originate? It is claimed as a national dish by both Wales and Ireland and is recommended for consumption on their respective Saints’ days. The Scottish have their own version titled Tattie-and-Leekie and then again there is the vichyssoise version that is linked with Vichy in France so are the Gaelic origins a myth?
The history of the soup is revealed in the history of the components. Leeks are recorded as being in use in Ancient Egypt and later in Greece. The Romans got to like them too (Nero thought they improved his singing voice) and they exported them across their empire and quite right too. Leeks are the original "superfood", high in not only fibre but also heart protecting substances such as flavonoids and polyphenols, which help to prevent our blood vessels from damage, and folate, a B vitamin that also supports our cardiovascular system.
So the Romans introduced them elsewhere with some ending upon in Britain. The high rainfall and deep rich soils in Wales make it an ideal vegetable to grow there. When the Saxons invaded they prepared to fight the Welsh army at the battle of Heathfield in 633 A.D. An advisor to the Welsh king, Cadwalader, was a monk called David (later to be canonized as St David after he elevated the ground he stood on so an audience could see him!). Anyway Monk David suggested the Welsh soldiers wear leeks in their helmets so they could distinguish friend from foe. The victory that day was put down to the tactical advantage this gave them.
So it is clear why leeks are so closely associated with Wales. As for Ireland Leeks were said to be one of the vegetables brought by the Normans and later the English when they came to Ireland in the 15th and 16th centuries. Nevertheless the Irish love leeks and use it widely in many recipes. Furthermore there is an old Irish legend that says that St. Patrick was consoling a dying woman. She told him that in a vision she had seen an herb floating in the air, and that it had been revealed to her that unless she ate it she would die. The saint asked her what kind of herb it was. She told him that it looked like rushes. Thus St. Patrick transformed some rushes into leeks; she ate them and was cured. St. Patrick was born in Britain to wealthy parents near the end of the fourth century. He is believed to have died on March 17, around 460 A.D. So if there is any truth in the legend they have been in Ireland for at least as long as they have been in Wales!
There is more. St Patrick was said to have liked Brotchán Roy (Kings’ Soup) a mix of Leeks and Oatmeal that is almost exclusively Irish in origin. Exactly how far back this soup dates is debatable, with some claiming it goes back to the days of the ancient Druids. This is highly probable and there is a wealth of information online about these native ingredients and Druidism. Not Leek and Potato but maybe only a short step away. Certainly this ancient Irish Soup is much older than Cock-a-Leekie soup of Scotland that is first mentioned in print in 1598. Almost certainly Tattie-and-Leekie was much later and so it is fair to put the Scots behind their Gaelic cousins in being first past the post in combing Leeks and Potatoes in a bowl.
Turning to the other named ingredient the potato. This of course is much more closely connected in most people’s minds to Ireland. The Spanish brought the potato to Europe in 1570 where the first account of its sale was in Seville in 1573 when it was purchased as part of the normal supply of vegetables. From Spain the potato spread through Europe in 1590 it had reached the British Isles where it was first used as an ornamental bedding plant but its value as a food was quickly established. By 1601 it was also a common vegetable in Germany and France. The Irish were the first to seriously consider the potato as a staple food. By 1663 it was widely accepted in Ireland as an important food plant and by 1770 it was known as the Irish Potato. The potato became associated with depressed agricultural areas in England, Scotland and especially in Ireland. In Ireland the potato first became a centrepiece of winter diet from August to March taking the pressure off the late summer wait for the oats harvest. The cost of sticking with the older patterns of eating by the majority of the people was too high especially with the loss of their land and the shifting of the bulk of the population to the south and west of Ireland. They were required to exist on the marginal boggy lands of these parts of the country. The new diet of potato and oatmeal was regarded by the Irish as inferior but was nutritious and allowed the population to increase even during the little ice age of 1650 to 1720.
As for Wales the use of Potatoes was mentioned in Merrett’s Pinax. In 1666, Christopher Merrett published "Pinax rerum naturalium britannicarum," this essentially being a catalogue of British plant localities known at the time together with a few other items of natural history. Whilst there is a legend that potatoes came to Wales following the shipwreck of an Irish barque it is clear their introduction was pretty parallel to that in Ireland. And this trend continues. Recall from above the date 1770 when the term “Irish Potato” was in use and compare this with a welsh dictionary by John Roderick in 1725 which shows the word Potato had gained the characteristic Welsh plural form and was a common colloquial term.
So the evidence is really finely balanced and it is only fair to attribute the origins of Leek and Potato soup to both Nations. Ah but what of Vichyssoise? Do the French pre date the British Gaels? Well no is the answer. Vichyssoise was strangely enough invented on American soil. Credit for this (usually) cold soup is given to a Frenchman, Louis Diat, who was a chef at the Ritz-Carlton in New Your City during the first half of the 20th century. He has been quoted as saying he was inspired in his invention by childhood memories of adding cold milk to his soup to cool it on hot summer days. He named his soup after Vichy, a town famous for its spa, which was located close to Diat's boyhood home.