The Book of Garlic

An extract: 

Garlic (Allium sativum) might be described as a pungent bulbous cultivated perennial - but this definition in no way gives even a hint of the magic and allure of garlic.

Like many people, my early years were spent garlicless. My love affair with garlic started in my early twenties when former peasant dishes became high cuisine - and a widening interest in herbal remedies brought back a lot of the lore of our great grandparents. This seems to have been the fate of garlic - alternately loved and abandoned for thousands of years.

Garlic is traditionally a peasant spice and remedy. In Ancient Egypt it was fed to labourers building the pyramids to give them strength (and possibly increased resistance to waterborne diseases); it was sacrificed to the Ancient Egyptian gods (garlic cloves were found in the tomb of Tutankhamen dating from around 1352 BC) and Egyptian husbands of the same era were said to chew garlic on the way home from their mistresses so their wives would not suspect they'd engaged in dalliance.

Roman and Greek warriors ate garlic to give them strength and courage, and it was an important part of the stores of military triremes. In Ancient Greece athletes chewed garlic before the Olympic games to give them vitality and endurance (and lovers ate it to give them endurance of another kind).

The Romans applied a plaster of crushed garlic to cure haemorrhoids; and there is a Muslim legend that when Satan stepped out of the Garden of Eden garlic sprang up under his left foot. The prophet Mohammed is said to have advised that garlic be applied to the bites of vipers or the sting of a scorpion, and in many parts of the world garlic is still applied to relieve the effect of venom. Garlic was held to be a sacred herb ('moly') with magic healing properties by European gypsies.

Garlic was not so well regarded in some aristocratic circles. The Roman patrician Virgil recommended it as a food for labourers to give them strength for the harvest. The priestess Medea is said to have smeared her lover Jason (a hero of ancient Greece) with garlic to repel her father's savage bulls. Presumably they were aristocratic bulls and not enamoured of peasant smells.

In 1368 King Alphonso of Castile instituted a new order of knights - one of the prerequisites being that any member who had eaten garlic should not come into the King's presence for a month.

Garlic originated - and still grows wild - in central Asia around Uzbekhistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, in the Altaic Mountains of Siberia and in the Ural Mountains near the Caspian Sea. (Italian chefs however may insist it originated in Sicily, and occasional Indian cooks claim it as theirs too).

Garlic has been domesticated in China for at least 5,000 years, in the Middle East for at least 4,000 years and it is mentioned in the earliest Indian Vedic writings. The Romans brought garlic to much of northern Europe and Columbus, reversing the trend to take New World plants back to the Old, took garlic to what is now the Dominican Republic. From there garlic eating spread across South and Central America.

Garlic has a similarly long medical history. The Codex Exelser, an Egyptian medical papyrus from about 1500 BC, lists 22 garlic remedies for heart problems, worms and as a general tonic. According to Pliny the Ancient Eygptians used garlic to repel scorpions and serpents and he and Dioscorides valued it as a treatment for asthma, worms and as a tonic and diuretic.

In the Middle Ages garlic was esteemed as a cure for leprosy and deafness (and it may in fact have helped skin conditions that resembled leprosy and some hearing problems). It was believed that garlic 'neutralised foul air' and so prevented pestilence. Medieval doctors wore masks stuffed with garlic to save them from the plague and during the Great Plague garlic cost more than its weight in gold in London. Garlic was one of the ingredients in the Four Thieves Vinegar, used by Marseilles grave robbers in the 1722 plague to give them resistance to infection from the corpses they robbed. The seventeenth century farrier Gervase Markham fed horses that had nightmares balls of garlic, liquorice and aniseed.

In Victorian England bruised garlic cloves were applied to the chests of consumptive children, or bound to the feet to ease inflammation of the brain. Even as late as World War 1 garlic juice was still applied to wounds as an antiseptic by the British Army (and probably quite effective it was too).

Why Garlic Stinks


It is mostly the sulphur compounds in garlic that make it smell - and most of these are found in the pale yellow garlic oil, which makes up about a tenth of the weight of the clove. The most important of these is alliin, which is odourless, but is converted to allicin, one of the main active ingredients in garlic and making up to .4% of the clove. Allicin smells.

Garlic's aroma is excreted via the lungs and skin - which is why your breath and sweat may smell of garlic.

How to Stop Garlic Smelling
An old gardening tradition asserts that garlic is sweeter but less pungent when grown in warm climates - in cold areas it will be bitter and biting. This, however, may have more to do with the local varieties grown than with climate. According to medieval lore, if garlic is both planted and harvested when the moon is below the horizon, the garlic will be far less pungent. I haven't tried it.

 

How to Stop Your Breath Smelling of Garlic
Eat a few sprigs of fresh parsley (chew well) or nibble a slice of raw ginger or chomp on a few fresh mint leaves. I have been told by a French friend that good red wine will also remove the smell of garlic (or at least change it into an acceptable perfume). It didn't- but the experiment was fun.

It has also been claimed that eating lots of garlic reduces the smell - that it is only the occasional garlic binger who gets smelly breath. This is a remedy for garlic addicts.

It is mostly raw garlic in salads or semi-raw garlic in garlic bread however that flavours the breath - cooked garlic is much sweeter and less pungent. Perhaps the final remedy is just encourage everyone to eat a lot of garlic so no one notices the odour any more.

How to Stop Your hands Smelling of Garlic
Scrub garlicky hands with salt in cold water and lemon juice, then wash with warm soapy water, or place half a cup of bicarbonate of soda in a the blender with the juice of 2 lemons and a bunch of parsley. Blend thoroughly. Keep in a jar in the fridge and dip your fingers in it after peeling garlic. Wash with cold then warm soapy water.

How to stop Your Fridge Smelling of Garlic
If your fridge smells of garlic (never leave garlic in the fridge - or an uncovered dish of garlic sauce - but accidents do happen) leave a little jar of bicarbonate of soda open on the shelves with a few drops of vanilla sprinkled on it.

 

Garlic and Animals
Many wild and domestic animals will feed on garlic - I once watched a gourmet wallaby taking alternate bites of garlic leaf and lettuce. Wild garlic can be a pest if dairy cattle eat it as it can taint the taste of the milk. And gorillas and various other primates have been noted browsing on wild garlic.

 

Large amounts of garlic (both the leaves and bulbs) have been fed to stock to both treat them for worms and to stop them getting infested. Garlic is also fed to animals as a general tonic, to ease mastitis, to increase the performance of stallions and bulls and to help fevers and other illnesses - recipes appear in the section on medicinal garlic as these garlic remedies can also be used for many animals.

Garlic is usually fed to stock chopped up in bran and moistened with molasses to disguise the taste - animals are fonder of the leaves than the strong but more medicinally active cloves.

 

Garlic and Fleas and Ticks.
Feeding garlic regularly to cats and dogs is said to help repel ticks and fleas. About one clove per day is the normal dose for a medium sized dog, with about a quarter of that for cats and about twice that for very large dogs.

 

Garlic Paste for Scaly Leg on Hens
Crush six cloves of garlic and add to three dessertspoons powdered sulphur and two dessertspoons sorbolene cream. Rub well into the affected legs, leave for 24 hours and wash off with hot soapy water. Peel off the softened skin and repeat.

© Jackie French