Its flavour brought fear (and frequent loathing) to the hearts of post-war eaters introduced to this member of the allium family with the cookbooks of Elizabeth David in the 1950s. Eating garlic separated the men from the boys (women, in those days, generally being the person assigned to cooking duties and in whose gift, therefore, it was to use the root or not).
It’s curious it took us so long to discover the flavouring. Garlic has been known since the time of the ancient Egyptians. In a rather high-handed tone, ancient Romans described it as “much used for food among the poor.”
Way back in those days, it was also recognised for its medicinal properties. Studies today have confirmed it contains high levels of vitamins and a large number of nutrients from calcium to iron and phosphorus necessary to the functioning of our immune system.
Garlic can reduce colds and the duration of a cold. It’s said to have an impact on reducing blood pressure and in consequence cardiovascular diseases such as stroke and heart attack. There are studies that suggest it can also assist in controlling the development of Alzheimer’s and dementia, though these studies have their sceptics.
Native to central Asia with at least 120 cultivars, garlic grows wild all over the place. Walk through a wood in Scotland in late spring and the scent of garlic fills the air, while the firework sparkles of its white flowers indicate that its best picking time is now past. Its leaves make a good pesto, eliminating the need for the clove of garlic and the basil, the essential base to which are added the pine nuts or walnuts, oil and Pecorino Romano of the original Genoese recipe.
In France, three types of garlic have been awarded protected AOC status. Not just the familiar Ail Rose de Lautrec, the rose pink garlic of the Lautrec region most readily found in markets in spring, but the Ail Blanc de Lomagne from Gascony, and Ail de la Drôme. These are the garlics to be most simply experienced by rubbing a cut clove (leave its peel on for grip) over a thick slice of sourbread toast before drizzling over a glug of good olive oil and a grinding of black pepper. Add diced sunripe tomato and you have bruschetta (pronounced ‘broosketta’, please, never ‘brooshetta’).
Regular garlic is all you need for cooking. And if you come across those large containers of ready-peeled cloves, one way to use them is to confit them. Set them in a small saucepan and cover them with vegetable oil to rise 1 centimetre above them and simmer them over the lowest possible heat until they begin to turn a soft gold. Let them cool and store them in the fridge for adding to roast chicken or other baked dishes, using the flavoured oil to baste, or serve them to hearty (brave?) gourmets in a bowl ,stabbing some of them with toothpicks, to eat with aperitifs. This method produces deliciously squishy, caramelised cloves. Or spread them over a slice of toast.
Garlic is a good ‘elevator’ of food. Its flavour convinces the diner you’ve spend time and effort over your cooking as in this recipe that impresses but which comes together with very little time and effort. It will do its stuff in the oven while you are outside with your aperitif and confited garlic, enjoying the wonderful June weather.
- 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- A wineglassful of bought mayonnaise
- 65g grated Comte, Parmesan, or other hard cheese, grated
- 2-3 tablespoons fine breadcrumbs
- 1 or 2 finely chopped cloves of peeled garlic to taste
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped tarragon
- A little milk in a dinner plate
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 200C.
- Line a baking sheet with buttered greaseproof paper.
- In a small bowl, mix together the mayonnaise, garlic, herbs and cheese. Season with salt and black pepper.
- Dip each chicken breast in the milk and lay it on the baking sheet.
- Spread each chicken breast with the mayonnaise mix and bake for 15-20 minutes.
- Remove from oven and sprinkle over the breadcrumbs then return to the oven and bake for a further 15-20 minutes till the juices run clear. If the breadcrumbs haven’t turned gold, set them under a hot grill for a minute or two.