Garlic, a southern icon

August 25th, 2009


Isolate the key flavors, the products of southern France, and the list looks something like this:  olives, olive oil, lemons, tomatoes, bell peppers and pimento, almonds and pistachios, anchovies, and of course, garlic.  Scan all countries ringing the Mediterranean Sea to find only slight variations on this lineup.  So, which kind of garlic do southern cooks choose and use most? Once dried, braided and strung up, the pink garlic of Lautrec keeps longer, while the white – almost sweet - allium sativum of Beaumont de Lomagne in Gascony is the juicy choice during summer and early autumn.  By the first of November, bitter, green sprouts appear inside this variety, indicating it is ready for planting in the next round, to be harvested early the following July.  In the same rhythm, for about a thousand years garlic has been cultivated in southern Europe – but jump back 6,000 years to trace cultivated garlic in Egypt and India. This powerful allium, noted in Sanskrit medical treatises from the second century B.C. to the second century A.D., was devoted to use as an antifungal, antiseptic and cleansing agent.  The upper classes never ate garlic, as was true of Brahmins, the clergy and upper classes around the Mediterranean for centuries:  it was a peasant ingredient relegated to cucina di povera.

How things have changed since the 1940’s, when garlic was embraced as a flavorful element by popular opinion, gradually making inroads into haute cuisine.  Fast forward to the second half of the twentieth century, when gastronomic sights were set on southern Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and into the twenty-first as “fresh and healthful” became each cook’s mantra. Meanwhile, the “peasant cooking” of Europe that included garlic and other hefty ingredients has come into the spotlight. It is hard to imagine an Andalusian gazpacho, a Greek skordalia, or even Polish dill pickles without  garlic to enhance the punch of flavors….and don’t ignore this season’s vibrant blend of garlic, basil and nuts: pesto.  To crush or to cook is your choice.  When garlic is cooked, the hot sensation and odors of allicin disappear, and the edge of raw garlic mellows. With this in mind, Sicilian cooks rarely or never use garlic raw, but prefer the deeper flavors of the cooked buds.  But what about haleine (bad breath)?  Avoiding garlic breath doesn’t seem to be a concern when everyone else is eating garlic – as the vagabond has noted in Gascony and the Languedoc.  More refined tastes and sensitive noses may beg to differ, as the situation varies.  Planning to meet with your lawyer after lunch?  He has probably just had garlic-infused sausages and pasta tossed with pungent pesto on his plate.

All these comments aside, how can you best keep the savory garlic on hand for a quick tzadziki salad or to rub onto a lamb chop? Preserving buds in olive oil is good for a week – at most. After that, unwelcome bacterial growth is a distinct possibility. For longer term use, I like to pop garlic cloves into a small jar of sherry vinegar to keep in the fridge, and seldom buy more than two heads at a time.  In eastern Europe, young bulbs and shoots are pickled as a condiment. Baking whole heads of garlic with a roast chicken is reserved for a special event, and each person has a small spoon to scoop out the sweet soft – very mellow – garlic. Whether you crush or cook garlic, you’ll be doing yourself a favor – it boosts the immune system, acts as a stimulant to digestion, and enhances flavors of whatever it is mixed with, especially the other other sun-drenched icons of Mediterranean cuisine.

Note: There are over 300 varieties of garlic, so if you are interested in planting your own, refer to for details.

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