Garlic, or allium sativum, is a species in the onion genus, Allium. Close relations include the onion, leek, shallot, chive and rakkyo. As with all members of the onion family, garlic releases sulphurous compounds, mostly allicin, when it is cut – or nibbled by a curious animal. Releasing these odours ensures that only a small munch is eaten rather than a feasting. Despite this, garlic has been consumed by humans for over 7,000 years.
Garlic is native to central Asia. The use of garlic in China has been dated back to 2000 BC. It was consumed by ancient Greek and Roman soldiers, sailors and the rural classes. Alexander Neckham, a writer in the 12th century, wrote about garlic being a ‘palliative for the heat of the sun in field labour’. Garlic was placed by the ancient Greeks on the piles of stones at crossroads as a supper for Hecate. Garlic was invoked as deities by the Egyptians at the taking of oaths. Garlic has also been recorded to be part of a cure for smallpox and for curing some cases of edema singlehandedly.
In England, garlic was supposed to have been grown from 1548 but was quite rare in the British cuisine, being a far more common use in Mediterranean culinary. However, garlic has become a staple in most households as a form of flavour due to our experimentation with global cookery. It was not until the Renaissance period that England included garlic in their medicine chests, and it was used for treatment of toothache, constipation, dropsy and plague. By the World Wars, garlic was accepted by the English medicinally for using as an antiseptic to prevent gangrene.
This is an interesting picture I found on ‘AllicinFacts’. It is a table showing the historical uses of garlic in medicine over the centuries in different cultures.
In Europe, many cultures have used garlic for spiritual protection, owing to its reputation as a potent preventative medicine. European folk beliefs considered it a powerful ward against demons, werewolves and vampires. To ward off vampires, garlic could be worn on the body, hung in windows, or rubbed on chimneys and keyholes to prevent them from entering. In Iranian countries which celebrate Nowruz (Persian calendar New Year) and Central Asian countries, garlic is one of the items in a Seven-Seen table, a traditional New Year’s display. In some Buddhist traditions, garlic, along with the other five ‘pungent spices’, is understood to stimulate sexual and aggressive drives to the detriment of meditation practice. In Mahayana Buddhism, monks and nuns are prohibited from consuming garlic or other pungent spices such as chili, which are deemed as being earthly pleasures and are viewed as promoting aggression due to their pungency.
It may be tempting not to grow your own garlic. A whole bed donated to it can take up room and it is cheap and easy to buy anywhere. However – garlic is a good companion crop: it can be planted amongst other crops to ward of pests with its strong smell. For example, it is supposed to repel flea beetle so try planting some around your orientals or brassicas if they are suffering. It is also meant to ward off carrot fly so pop some in near your root crops around the edges. It fits into most places. We have lots planted under our blackcurrant bushes. It will keep in the ground for a long time like root crops or potatoes but it will also keep once harvested indoors in a cool, dry, dark place. Homegrown garlic is far more stronger tasting and smelling and the white bulbs you dig up will be beautiful compared to any supermarket variety. The increased fresh taste of it means you need less bulbs for your dishes to taste incredible, meaning you are being more economical after all despite the cheapness of garlic in your local shop.
Garlic likes to be planted in a sunny, free-draining patch. You will buy either individual cloves or a whole head of garlic. If it is the latter, separate the garlic cloves and plant them directly during October or November or February or March. They will be ready for harvesting in the summer months, from May to September. You want to try to sow it in the autumn as it will be larger and slightly earlier than ones sown in February or March. To sow, put them 7cm deep with the flat base downwards, allowing 15cm between them, rows 20cm apart. When flowers appear, snap them off so that energy is directed towards the bulbs to make them grow bigger. The flowered garlic heads I feed to my pigs.
To harvest, pull the plants from June as green garlic for immediate use in the kitchen or wait for a while until the leaves brown to peel back the soil to see if there are large bulbs ready for digging up. Once pulled up, dry them in the sun for a day or two, turning them over so that both sides benefit from the light. Store them indoors somewhere cool.
All members of the onion family are vulnerable to rust. Crop rotation is the best answer to this problem.
Garlic is famous for being antibacterial, blood-twining, sprit lifting, cholesterol lowering and detoxifying. Legend says that garlic bestows a lucky charm upon those that eat it as well as protection and good fortune. It discourages the devil and restores lost souls. Sounds like a magic plant!
A 2013, a study concluded that garlic preparations may effectively lower total cholesterol by 11–23 mg/dL and LDL cholesterol by 3–15 mg/dL, if taken for longer than two months. The same analysis found that garlic had a positive effect on HDL cholestreol and no significant effect on blood levels suggesting that garlic preparations were generally well tolerated with very few side effects by all. A 2014 meta-analysis of observational epidemiological studies found that garlic consumption is associated with a lower risk of stomach cancer in the Korean population.
When cooking with garlic, the simple trick to remember is that the finer you chop, the stronger the flavour. Raw garlic has the most beneficial qualities; cooking diminishes them slightly but there is no need to panic, it is just as good for you if slightly less. I use cooked garlic in quite a lot of recipes. Along with onions, it is the base for a flavoured sauce. A classic is to fry some sliced onion in oil until it is golden brown, to add one or two diced cloves of garlic along with some tinned tomatoes and then to add some pre-cooked beans (kidney, butter bean, chickpea etc.) to make a vegetarian meal to have alongside some rice, potatoes or pasta. I use cooked garlic in pizza toppings, bolognese and lasagne, curries, stews, pie fillings… It is a cooking ingredient I rarely go without. I am also a big fan of raw garlic, seeing as I am a humous-monster. Another recipe I was taught by my mum that uses raw garlic is eggy spaghetti – a sort of carbonara styled dish using egg yolks instead of cheese sauce, raw garlic and salt and pepper for seasoning. In Italy, it is common to have this dish with chilli and garlic instead of egg yolks but we have used this delightful meal when we have had a few too many chicken eggs and it works a treat and will pack a protein punch for a vegetarian. Cut some ham or left over bacon up and sprinkle it on top for a meat eater.
If you keep chickens along with your kitchen garden, then this is a great recipe for using up egg yolks. Don’t discard the egg whites – put them in an old yoghurt pot and label with the date. Use them up in a week in a meringue of pavlova, if you have time.
You want the spaghetti to still be quite hot when you stir in the egg yolks and garlic as it is better if the yolks slightly cook but you don’t want them to turn into scrambled eggs so be wary. Remember: the finer you dice the garlic, the stronger it will taste.
Eggy Garlic Spaghetti
-About 500g spaghetti – 6-8 egg yolks – 2 large cloves of garlic, diced very finely – Salt and pepper, for flavour – Peas, runner beans, broccoli or a mixture of salad leaves to serve – Ham, bacon or Ketchup to serve, optional
- Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Put the spaghetti in it and allow it to simmer for about ten minutes, until the pasta is well cooked. Drain and set aside, keeping it warm.
- Whisk the egg yolks and garlic together in a separate bowl. Add the mixture to the hot spaghetti and stir until thoroughly combined (add more egg yolks if needed. You want the paste to look yellow and for it to cover the spaghetti). Sprinkle a tiny bit of salt and pepper over the top and stir in.
- Serve with cooked vegetables or salad. If you care for it, cut some ham or bacon up into little pieces and sprinkle over the top. Offer Ketchup for the kids… and me.