One good thing: Garlic, a perfect food

It’s hard to complain about eating French cheese and baguettes and rillettes and delicious stone fruit for weeks on end. I’d eaten steaming bowls of mussels and skinless fried chicken with buttered potatoes and loads of chocolate croissants. But it wasn’t until I was in Paris for about a month that I realized what I had been missing. My taste buds had been craving something and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.

Luckily, while we were in Paris, my husband and I had planned a trip to visit a friend’s house on Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples, for a long weekend. When we arrived we found our friends on the beach. “We need lunch!” they said, and we climbed a few steps to a restaurant overlooking the sparkling, dark blue sea. We ordered several bottles of prosecco and bowls of seafood pasta, and most importantly, a pile of fresh bruschetta, which topped crusty slices of bread with juicy tomatoes.

I bit into one and my tongue settled, burning just a little, the flavor spreading to all four corners of my palate. I looked down and saw the tiny splotches of white mingled with the tomatoes. It was like tasting a memory: garlic! Fresh, raw, hot, fiery garlic. My desire had been answered.

Salone del Gusto 2012

Garlic piles high at a market in Turin, Italy.
Jacopo Raule/Getty Images

French cuisine, of course, uses a lot of garlic — and more and more of it the further south you go. It is considered a typical French vegetable. But it’s often more subtle and more integrated into the dish than in Italy. When it emerges, it is often roasted or fried or in confit form, its fire tamed and transformed with heat, fat and patience. In much of Italy, on the other hand, it is ubiquitous; the more the better, the sharper the better.

But garlic is a cosmopolitan plant, a citizen of the world. People all over the world have been growing and eating it for thousands of years, starting on the Asian continent in countries like China and India. It had culinary and medicinal uses, from treating infections to warding off malevolent spirits. Garlic cloves were found in Tutankhamun’s Egyptian tomb when it was excavated in 1922. The ancient Romans loved it.

Roman invaders brought garlic to Europe in the Middle Ages and to America in the 17th century. But depending on where you were, it could be seen as special, the territory of the rich, or maybe suspicious because it was associated with immigrants and foreigners, who were often seen as poor, dirty, and maybe degenerate.

At the beginning of the 20th century, garlic was particularly hard to find in England and viewed with suspicion by the meat-and-two-veg home cooks. Its introduction to this country is largely due to Elizabeth David, a horsefly from an Englishwoman who survived the war in various Mediterranean countries, Egypt and India. When she returned to her home country after the war, she found it gloomy and gray and still groaning under the weight of the austerity measures that kept the food bland and boring.

She thought wistfully of the bright, fresh ingredients she ate, especially in Italy, and began writing about them, eventually yielding a book titled A book of Mediterranean cuisine in 1950. For an English chef with no connection to the Mediterranean in his training, reading it was a bit like writing a fantasy novel. Ingredients like olive oil, basil, aubergines and of course garlic were still hard to find. For David it was as much a declaration of hope as an attempt to capture memories. One day the drabness and austerity would be over, and if people asked for olive oil and garlic, maybe they could get it.

And indeed they could. David wrote many other books dealing with other cuisines and the history of food. She became a respected magazine writer and eventually opened a shop where chefs could find hard-to-find kitchen appliances. But it was her love of garlic and all things that come with it, and the cultures that used it so well, that started a revolution in a small country with long-lasting reverberations. (It’s not hard to find garlic in England now.)

Garlic drying in the greenhouse in Tyntesfield

Freshly harvested garlic dries in a greenhouse in the UK.
Tessa Bunney/In Pictures via Getty Images Images

I have more French in my heritage than Italian, but I’m very garlic-forward in my home cooking. If a recipe calls for two cloves, that means at least four, maybe six. Garlic goes into each pan once the onions have finished browning and softening and sizzles for a minute before adding the veggies or shrimp or whatever I’m cooking. (In a less culinary-challenging example, I think the right topping for popcorn is garlic salt.)

Garlic’s appeal isn’t that it’s some kind of antioxidant wonder drug, although the science suggests it is. I’m also not particularly worried about vampires lurking outside my door.

There’s just something indescribably perfect about a clove of garlic, about the specific kind of warmth it brings to a dish. Echoing the French and Italians, I love how it develops depending on how you cook it, the many things it can be. Tuck cloves under the skin of a whole chicken before roasting, and they add a savory sweetness to the meat. Slice it up and fry it, sprinkle it over a platter of stewed vegetables and you have a delicious topping. Chop it up into tiny pieces and add it to a spread and it’s flavorful. Stew it in oil or fry it whole and you can spread it on bread. The curly, light green leaves that sprout from it in spring are a touch of delicious, almost salty fire when chopped and added to scrambled eggs. It’s a perfect meal.

But I don’t think about it until it’s gone, which means I cheat sometimes. I buy chopped garlic in jars because I use them up so quickly. Have you ever tried to make a garlic-free dish that calls for garlic? The results are sad, flat and taste like a light went out.

When I smell garlic on my fingertips now, I think of Elizabeth David. I also think of the bruschetta on the beach at Ischia and the beautiful bulb of garlic I bought at a market when we got back to Paris. I think of the mussels in garlic wine broth I had at a cafe on the Boulevard and the snails I ordered shortly thereafter, all buttery and garlicky and light. And I’m awfully glad I was in live in a world where there are writers, cooks, experimenters and big heads of garlic.

For more recommendations from the world of culture, see A good thing Archive.

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