Sunday, November 28, 2010

Garlic - Our Garden's Superhero

In it’s cloak of good-guy white, and muscles of virtue rippling underneath, the pugnacious garlic bulb reigns supreme at the top of the superfood charts. And as every food or health writer keeps telling us, there’s no end to the miracles it can perform.

Garlic - the veg world's superhero
Apparently garlic health benefits include combating colds and flus, cutting heart disease, fighting infections, reducing blood pressure, purifying the blood, giving you healthier, more subtle skin.

It reverses outward signs of aging, cures baldness when rubbed on the scalp, strenghtens fingernails and toenails, eradicates erectile disfunction, helps dieters lose weight, doubles the strength of athletes, makes candidates perform better in job interviews, boosts that part of the brain which controls your fashion sense, enables you to win the X factor, trebles the ability of finance ministers to solve complex economic problems... and if enough people eat it, garlic can deliver world peace.

Eradicates erectile disfunction - they'll be fighting over you if you eat garlic!
Well perhaps not that last par.

But given that garlic has been used both as a vital food and a medicine since the beginning of time and that most great ancient civilisations relied  heavily on its applications, it’s not surprising that some lofty claims have emerged alongside its verifiable qualities. Galen, the gladiator’s physician, called it the “rustic’s theriac” (cure all).

It does contain high levels of vitamin C, vitamin B6 along with selenium, calcium, phosphorus, copper, iron and is brim full of alliin, an amino acid.

 Wilder claims include:
(a) Eating a six cloved garlic bulb enables a woman (only) to live forever (ancient Korea).
(b) A garlic bulb has the power to demagnetise stones (The Roman Empire - Pliny).
(c) A garlic bulb is a self contained deity to worship in its own right (The ancient Egyptians)
 In living memory, garlic was used before penicillin emerged to treat tuberculosis. In India it was used to treat leprosy, in Japan it was proscribed for impotency, and in Greece it was given to athletes at the Olympic games to increase energy levels.

No wonder it emerges, that in the thick of Ireland's economic meltdown,  finance Minister Brian Lenihan was been outed as a secret daily garlic chewer. He admits to keeping a stash of raw garlic cloves hidden in his pocket - it might repel vampires, but not the black suits from the IMF it seems.

Garlic breath minister yesterday....poooohh!!!

And so ensconced in the pub one night about this time last year, my Dad plonked a healthy looking garlic bulb in front of me. He had picked up three of them for a tenner in town. He split the other two and planted them and gave the third one to me. “Are you growing garlic?” he asks. The strange thing is, that having grown more than 60 different types of food in the last three years, I had never successfully produced a crop of garlic.

The old man didn’t know which particular variety of garlic his purchase happened to be -  other than the fact that the label had warned: “Very Strong.” To me, with its smaller, thinner cloves it looked like a wild strain.

He directed sternly that I needed to plant them “NOW!... That’s right NOW!” - this being emphasised by a finger jabbing the air and two highly raised eyebrows a la Bert (of Bert and Ernie fame). There was a long pregnant pause with the eyebrows held raised - and then the finger prodded air again to remphasise: “Right NOW!”

Dad with raised eyebrows: "Right NOW!"

There does seem to be a wide ranging dispute among growers about when to plant garlic and the importance of getting it right. All agree that the exact planting time is vital, unfortunately none of them agree when that actually is. Most pin a date some time between September and mid November.

I took it home, split it up (I got ten cloves inside) and the next morning planted them indoors in a window box sized container. Unfortunately, I’m not a morning person and until I have showered, caffeined and sat for a half hour to creak into life, I’m not really awake at all. It was only later in the day that I realised  I’d put the whole lot in upside down. The “butt” end is supposed to face downwards (where the roots emerge) and the “pointy” end faces upwards (this is where the shoots emerge). When I got home I dug them all up and started again. They’re supposed to be positioned about five to six inches apart and sunk two inches deep.

Some of our wild garlic harvest - note to self: plant the cloves butt end down!

More conflict on the internet where growers also disagree about whether garlic is easy or difficult to grow and whether it can be started indoors or not. Most seem to think garlic, like parsnips and swedes, needs a period of cold for its best performance. So my window box is going out of doors.

Much disagreement too about soil richness with some urging to manure it up and others warning that garlic doesn’t like high nitrogen levels. To be safe, I’ll keep mine in between.
What they do agree on is that garlic needs full sunlight and well drained soil and that it’s particularly important to keep weeds from choking it.

I discover that you harvest when the outer leaves start to turn brown and that the bulbs need to be dug up carefully around August to prevent bruising and thus ruining their storage life.

So I planted my cloves and was rewarded with a windfall of tiny wild garlic cloves currently stored in the fridge. While they're about twice as small as the regular shop bought cloves, they're about five times stronger. We learned this lesson when we dosed up a casserole with just three small cloves and ending up smelling for a week like a frenchman's belch.

Our wild garlic to the left, shop bought to the right

Today the snow is on the ground outside and it's heartening to find that already poking through the white sheet, in one of our raised beds, is this year's brand new garlic crop. From just one bulb last year, I got ten to twelve more all of which I split and planted. From this I got about 120 cloves, half of which were replanted for this year. All for free, or three quid were you to buy that one clove.

This year's fresh crop poking through the snow yesterday

My planned culinary experiments this coming year include attempting to make my own garlic oil and I might even try my hand at black garlic, the new asian culinary phenomenon sweeping the west in the form of heat fermented bulbs.

The other great thing about garlic is that its extraordinary qualities also repel all pests - no crop eating beastie will get its fangs into it. Which reminds me -  I can personally confirm the truth of at least one garlic legend - it’s ability to ward off vampires. I’ve been eating the stuff for years and I haven’t been bit yet!!

Some garlic claims are bona fides.

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