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The mighty garlic

From Sarah’s garden to yours

Garlic is one of those things you don’t often give a lot of thought to, it is just a kitchen essential that goes into almost every evening meal, delivering a fragrant punch like nothing else. 

Garlic has been used as a seasoning  for a very long time - for several thousand years.  It has even had a mention in the Bible, Homer’s Odyssey and in Sanskrit records from 5000 years ago documenting its medicinal uses.   There is even some evidence to suggest it was used as a seasoning more than 7000 years ago in Neolithic times.

In ancient civilisations, it was well recognised for not only its food seasoning abilities, but its health-giving properties and was given to Egyptian slaves, Greek athletes and Roman soldiers for strength, good health and even courage.  Romans are said to have planted fields of garlic in conquered countries to bring their courage with them into the new land.  After the fall of the Roman Empire garlic use was prevalent across Europe.  It can even be found growing wild in parts of Italy and France. 

It also became woven into the fabric of many cultures for its spiritual powers and was used as offerings to Gods and to ward off evil spirits.   Hanging garlic by the door helped to protect the home and most infamously, kept vampires, werewolves and the devil himself at bay! 

It originated in central Asia and, as well as its spread into Europe thanks to the Romans, it also found its way into China at least 3000 years ago and into the rest of Eastern Asia. It is very popular in the cuisine and culture there.

Elephant garlic

So, the Ancients knew anecdotally that garlic could ensure good health and could cure a multitude of illnesses and injuries, but it is with the benefit of modern technology that we can understand more about this.  It is said to have antiviral, antimicrobial, lower cholesterol, anti-blood coagulation and antioxidant properties among other things.  Various medical studies have shown it does have many health-giving properties to help with almost everything from heart disease, colds and flus through to acne and wart removal!  Although it is always important to seek proper professional help if you are ill. 

Garlic’s role as an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic remedy was replaced in 1928 by Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin.  However, during World War II, it was used effectively to treat wounded soldiers when penicillin supplies became scarce. 

As an addition to the diet garlic can bring many nutrients that help to fuel healthy bodies.  It is high in vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre and 17 amino acids that help your body to function.  It has plenty of vitamin A, B group and C.  In fact, 100g of garlic can give 95% of your daily dose of Vitamin B6.    It contains several essential minerals including manganese, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, iron, magnesium and potassium.

You would be hard pressed to find a kitchen in the world without garlic in the store cupboard as it is a staple ingredient in most international cuisines.  It is considered a herb and a vegetable but mostly it is used as a flavour enhancer rather than the star of the dish.  It gets it pungent flavour when cells are broken, which releases enzymes that trigger a chemical reaction with the sulphur compounds in the garlic.  You can control the strength of flavour depending on your preparation technique.  Crushing will release more flavour, whereas slicing and even using cloves whole can temper the intensity.   

Generally you eat the cloves within the bulb of garlic and there are so many ways to prepare them, mostly commonly chopped up and added to a myriad of dishes, however there are some ways to make garlic the star – by chopping the top of the bulb, adding olive oil and roasting it whole, pickling it, heating slowly for several weeks to make black garlic, gently smoking it, using it to flavour oils, or even dehydrating it and turning it into a powder can elevate garlic from the ordinary.

Garlic shoots

You can also eat the immature garlic harvested at a stage that resembles spring onions and has a mild garlic flavour.  Hard neck varieties of garlic produce a flower stem called a scape that can also be eaten and even the leaves can add a mild garlic tang to many dishes. 

To get the best out of your garlic is important to store it correctly - unpeeled in dark, cool, dry place preferably away from other foods.  Avoid storing it in plastic as this can allow it to sweat and become mouldy.  It isn’t recommended to keep it in the fridge.

Garlic’s scientific name is Allium sativum and is part of the onion family and as such is related to onions, leeks and chives.   The varieties grown in gardens are generally either hard neck garlic which likes a cooler climate or soft neck garlic which can be grown in warmer conditions.   Choosing the right variety for your area is important as garlic can be  day-length sensitive.  Elephant garlic is also a great choice for the home gardener as it can produce enormous bulbs, although it is more closely related to leeks than garlic and has a mild flavour.

It needs a loose, rich, free draining soil in a sunny spot.  Garlic grows into a bulb under the ground and generally requires a cold period of about 6 weeks where the soil temperature is below 10°C in a process called vernalisation to induce the bulb to divide to form the cloves.  So, they are generally planted in late autumn to midwinter, if the ground isn’t frozen.   It takes about 6 months before they are ready to harvest.

Separate the cloves from the bulb and plant the largest ones.  Space them out 10 cm apart and pop them into pre-made holes that are 5 cm deep, so you don’t damage the growth plate at the base.  The pointy end should be facing up.  Once they are up and growing, they don’t like competition so keep them weed free.  A good mulch can help.  It is a hungry crop so feed regularly during the growing season, easing up in the last month as the bulb fattens up.   They are ready to dig up when the lower third of the leaves begin to die off.  Leave in a dry shady spot for two weeks to cure before storing.

Garlic harvest