JP McMahon: Our long-standing relationship with garlic

Once considered the poor man’s choice, it is now a transformative staple for most of us

Bulbs to light up a dish: we Irish have traditionally used wild garlic  from the woods in our food.

Bulbs to light up a dish: we Irish have traditionally used wild garlic from the woods in our food.

 

What is it with garlic? Why do we add it to everything? Or if you don’t, why does everyone else? Garlic plays an important part in much European cuisine, from French to Italian and Spanish. But why is this?

Is it because of the zing it adds to any dish we add it to? Does everyone love its pungent beauty? Once associated with the poor, due to its rich aroma, now garlic is loved by all (or nearly all).

Garlic originates from the Middle East and Central Asi, most likely Iran. We’ve been using it to cook for thousands of years. One of the oldest written recipes, dating from 1750BC, is for a meat pie containing pounded garlic.

From Asia to Egypt, Rome and Greece, then on into the middle ages, this spear shaped leek (gar = spear, lic = leek) defined cooking for the common person. So common was garlic that Cervantes, the Spanish Renaissance writer, entreated the rich not to eat it lest they reveal themselves to be a peasant.

Mutated

Of course, there isn’t just one species of garlic and the original wild one has mutated many times over. There is now some beautifully protected species of garlic, such as Italian garlic PDO (aglio bianco polesano).

What is Ireland’s relationship to garlic? We have a long tradition of using wild garlic (allium ursinum) from the woods in our food. This type of garlic is native to Ireland and probably arrived more than 10,000 years ago from Europe and Asia (is this the qualification for native?).

Most garlic in Ireland stems from outside this country. The last two bulbs I picked up in the supermarket came from China (it produces 80 per cent of the world’s garlic) and Spain. The Spanish one was organic. Better the devil you know.

Drummond house produces wonderful Irish garlic. Of course, there are many more Irish producers so do seek them out. 

In a global world of continual divisions, we could take a leaf out of garlic’s book. It is a major component in nearly all cuisine of the world, from Asia to Latin America.

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