Veggie of the Week - Garlic
sponsored by Coleman Farms
I suspect there's a tendency in the U.S. to associate garlic with Mediterranean cooking, specifically with Italian and perhaps with Greek or Spanish, if it's familiar, and with the cuisine of Provence, and also with certain styles of Asian cooking, Szechuan Chinese, for instance. But garlic is used very widely, all over Europe and Asia, and in Arab and Latin American cooking. Germans use suprizing amounts of garlic in cooking and in flavoring Wurst, the Russians pickle it and put it in vodka, Koreans eat it by the clove raw, perhaps as a palate cleaner.
This sort of dispersion is to be expected for a plant that's in use at the start of history: it is evidenced in Sumerian and Egyptian texts and, physically, in Egyptian tombs. Moreover, garlic has properties which favor it's spread - the garlic bulb is a compact package of powerful, attractive flavor that's easy to carry, easy to use, easy to grow, and stores well. Garlic seems always to have been considered medicinal, too, possibly from it's "eat it, it's good for you" flavor, but there is modern evidence of it's pharmaceutical properties.
Although garlic has been grown and harvested for millenia, it occupies an interesting position at the edge of agriculture: until very recently it only been propagated by cloning - simply planting cloves of garlic or certain above ground parts of the plant that will regenerate, rather than from seed. Bypassing sexual reproduction means that there is no interchange of genetic material between plants, so that any variation in a strain, or cultivar, of garlic, must be introduced by relatively rare spontaneous mutation. Thus, although there are several thousand cultivars of garlic world wide, each of these is quite 'natural', the direct unalloyed descendent of some bulb once plucked from the wilds of Central Asia or Anatolia, perhaps. Thus, although garlic has been cultivated for thousands of years, until the last twenty it hasn't been selectively bred (genetically manipulated by humans). In effect, it's still a wild plant, and it's not completely fanciful to think of the clove of garlic you're going
to put in your sandwich in a few minutes as being in effect part of the same plant that came to Europe via ancient Egypt, or more directly in the bag of a Germanic or Hunnish horseman, or a sample of which was contemplated, then eaten, by a Sumerian scribe.
The fact that your garlic differs genetically from its ancestors only because of random natural mutations, and that over time these changes occur at a known average rate, raises the possiblity of using DNA analysis to construct a family tree for garlic, and of assigning more or less accurate dates to the branching points. Combining this tree with a geographic map of the distribution of garlic varieties would provide information useful in mapping human migration and trading patterns in contexts where no, or very sparse historical or archaeological information is available. An excellent discussion of this and other topics in this paragraph and the one preceeding can be found here.
Garlic is renowned, or notorious, for its flavor and the signature odor it leaves with its eaters. In the United States, with it's 'cleanliness' fetishes, garlic tends more often than not to be notorious; it's notorious too in Britain, though I think this hasn't got to do with 'cleanliness' so much as with xenophobia - which I suspect can also be part of its American notoriety. The smell, and the sharp element of the flavor, come from our friends the sulphur compounds (similar to those in Arugula, for example, and of course, to those in onions, garlic's close relative). Some of these break down under heat, so the flavor, and odor, of cooked garlic is a lot milder than that of raw. Most of us are used to garlic in pasta sauces, for example, or otherwise used in cooking, so I'll limit myself to suggesting the variations on aiolí to be found here - and follow up the links on this page.
Apart from their use of raw garlic, these sauces are interesting because they suggest uses for garlic that probably occur to few of us, namely using the concentrated flavor of the garlic together with some oil and nuts, if you're lucky, as a means of turning a piece of - probably stale - bread into a meal, in the absence of anything else, such as eggs, meat or cheese, to perform the same trick.
And finally, a note on names*. garlic comes from Old English gar, 'spear' and leac 'leek'. We're familiar with gar from names like Garfield and Garwood/Yarwood/Yearwood and perhaps Garcia (though I've also seen this derived from the Basque word for 'bear'); and of course we know 'leek'. The 'spear' element is explained as a reference to the garlic tops, but to me, the reference seems more appropriate to the tops of so-called 'wild garlic', the Alium that's found on the edges of British woods and is much the same as the Garlic Chives you can find at the Farmers' Market. This plant is a distinct species of Alium, but the flavor is close enough to that of garlic properly so called, that the name could easily transfer. And if you've ever wondered why a segment of garlic is a 'clove', it's because the root (or 'head') of garlic splits, or cleaves, unlike other Aliums, such as the onion,
which are either whole or divide into separate onionettes.
photo from spicelines.com