Garlic has been cultivated for so long that it is impossible to determine precisely its place of origin, though it is generally considered native to Asia. It is now grown in most warm lands, especially in Italy and southern France, California, and throughout the Mediterranean. It is recorded in Egypt from the earliest times and was eaten by the builders of the Pyramids.
Garlic is also known as “the stinking rose”, the term going back to Greek and Roman times. Known in Europe as ‘the noblest onion‘, garlic was used as a medicine and a charm in classical and medieval times. According to an Arab legend, garlic grew from the Devil’s footprint as he left Eden.
Culpeper, the herbalist, advises that stale garlic breath is freshened by chewing some cumin or green beans. We suggest that several glasses of red wine will sweeten garlicky breath, or at least reduce one’s self consciousness about it.
The most famous of all garlic folklore is its association with vampires, popularized in the West by Bram Stoker in the classic gothic novel Dracula. The name derives from Old English gar ‘spear’ and leac ‘leek’.
A perennial of the lily family, grown from a bulb. The leaves are flat and lance-shaped. They are green, sometimes with a blue tinge. Flowers and bulbils are borne in umbels enclosed in long beaked leafy membranes that split on one side. The bulbils, similar in colour to the peeled cloves, are about 1cm (3/sin) in diameter; the flowers, on slim stalks, are small, white or pink but often never seen as they wither in the bud.
Garlic is a bulb of a lily-like plant, belonging to the same family as onions, chives, leeks and scallions. It is similar in shape to an onion, but ridged. The bulb is compound, consisting of anything up to twenty segments, called ‘cloves’. Usually there are about ten cloves to a bulb, packed side by side around a thin central core, separated by scaly membranes and enclosed by a brittle parchment-like skin.
The flesh of the clove is ivory-coloured, and should be hard and firm though easily cut with a finger nail. The cloves should be tightly packed – loose cloves are a sign of deteriorating or inferior garlic. The skin is usually white, but may have a pale pink or purplish tinge. The peeled clove should be unblemished.
Garlic is widely variable in size, some Continental bulbs are minute. Many varieties of garlic exist. In South East Asia a small variety with only four to six cloves grows and is similar to rocambole (Spanish garlic, A llium sativum ophioscorodon). A giant variety is grown in California. Garlic is best bought whole, but also available in the form of granules (minced), powder or garlic salt.
Bouquet: Harsh, penetrating and lasting. The whole clove has no aroma.
Flavour: Sharp and acrid. The powerful oniony flavour can easily become overpowering if used to excess.
Hotness Scale (Raw): 4-5
Elephant garlic (allium ampeloprasum) is more closely related to the leek than to ordinary garlic. The bulbs are very large and can weigh over a pound. A single clove of elephant garlic can be as large as a whole bulb of ordinary garlic. It much less intense and sweeter and is often described as “garlic for people who don’t like garlic”.
When buying elephant garlic, follow the same guidelines as ordinary garlic: look for heads that are firm with plenty of dry, papery covering. Elephant garlic is more perishable than ordinary garlic so it doesn’t keep as long. When cooking with elephant garlic, remember that it is not a substitute for ordinary garlic. Instead it is used where a subtle hint of garlic is wanted without overpowering the rest of the food. Elephant garlic can be served raw in salads or sliced and sauted in butter.
Cooking with Garlic
The uses of garlic are infinite and it is an important ingredient in the cuisine of most nations. A small amount will ‘lift’ dishes of meat, fish and vegetables and be virtually undetectable.
Bouquets garnis sometimes include it. It is essential in the robust cookery of the Mediterranean region. Garlic butters accompany snails, mussels and grills of fish or meat. Pasta dishes often call for sauces flavoured with garlic. French and Spanish aioli and Greek skordalia are powerful garlic sauces.
It appears frequently in soups, salad dressings, patés, terrines, salamis and smoked spiced sausages. It is usual to include garlic in dishes of game. Joints of lamb and beef roasts benefit greatly by spiking the skin with slivers of garlic before roasting, few or many, according to taste.
For just a hint of garlic, rub the salad bowl or cooking pot with a cut clove. A bruised clove can be used to effect in a bottle of vinegar or salad dressing. Garlic is indispensable to Indian cookery and is widely used in China and South East Asia.
Preparation and Storage
When buying garlic, make sure the heads are dry with plenty of paper covering. If you can see green shoots then the garlic is probably too old or wasn’t dried properly. Garlic that is too old will crumple under the slightest pressure from the fingers.
Separate a clove from the bulb as necessary. Either peel like an onion, first slicing off the ends, or crush the clove with the flat of a knife when the skin will be much easier to remove. The garlic can then be chopped or mashed with the addition of a little salt – this will absorb the juice which would otherwise be lost and also prevent the pieces from slipping about. Although it is usually advised to use the point of a knife to mash garlic, a fork is even better.
Wooden surfaces and utensils are best avoided – a stale garlic odour will cling to them. If using a garlic press, there is no need to peel the clove as the skin will remain in the press and is easily removed after use. When several cloves are to be crushed, use a pestle and mortar with a little salt.
Keep heads of garlic in a cool dry atmosphere. Processed garlic must be kept in airtight containers.
Health Benefits of Garlic
Garlic has been used since ancient times for innumerable complaints and amongst the properties attributed to it are: diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant and intestinally antispasmodic.
Garlic is considered to be nature’s very own antibiotic. Unlike most antibiotics, it will not deplete the body of flora, and is considered to be the cure-all herb because of its effectiveness on the entire body.
Popularly used as a digestive aid, garlic increases bile production while enhancing digestion and reducing stomach gases. Garlic has also been used for lowering cholesterol, reducing high blood pressure, and treating respiratory problems such as bronchitis and asthma.
In modern times the constituents of garlic have been shown to be bacteriostatic – in World War I the juice was extensively used on wounds; a glycoside compound has been proved to be lethal to certain organisms. In Russia allicin is so much esteemed that it is known as ‘Russian penicillin’.
The Japanese also favour garlic as a cure-all, and one researcher has patented a garlic spray machine that is claimed to provide beneficial therapy for a multitude of ailments.
Garlic is a source of selenium, which must be present in the body for proper immune response, and which acts as an antioxidant in combination with vitamin E. A host of epidemiological studies say garlic appears to work against prostate and stomach cancers, with some studies suggesting it may block breast, liver and colon cancer. Rich in potassium, zinc, selenium, and Vitamins A & C, garlic is commonly used to fight infection, increase circulation and help prevent cardiovascular disease.
Garlic has been known to detoxify the body by cleansing the kidneys and increasing urine flow. Furthermore, garlic’s healing properties make it an ideal agent for fighting colds and flu, bacteria, and fungi. Garlic oil is often administered in odorless gelatine capsules to obviate the unpleasantness of the smell. The aphrodisiac properties of garlic have been much praised; however, it is advisable that both partners take the recommended prescription.
Garlic is common as a kitchen-garden plant. It is propagated by planting the cloves. Soil: rich, light, well drained and manured. Plant 5cm (2in) deep, 15cm (6in) apart in autumn (or spring in cooler climes); cloves must be upright. Aspect: Sunny. Turn soil regularly. Pick bulbs and dry in August or September, when the tops turn yellow. Dry before tying up in bundles and store in a cool dry place.
Clown’s Treacle, Poor Man’s Treacle
French: ail, gousse d’ail (clove)
Italian: aglio, capo d’aglio (clove)
Spanish: ajo Arabic: toom
Chinese: suen tau
Indian: lashuna, las(s)an, lassoon, lus(s)on
Indonesian: bawang puteh, b. putih
Malay: bawang puteh, putih