FOOD & DRINK / Not just for keeping vampires at bay: Anglo-Saxons were once repulsed by garlic, but now they can't get enough of it. Geraldene Holt sniffs out a trend

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The Independent Culture
JUST sniffing distance away from the City Lights bookshop, celebrated haunt of the beatnik poets, is San Francisco's latest speciality restaurant. Named The Stinking Rose, it is dedicated to the consumption of garlic.

Beyond the resistible jars of dried garlic flakes, 'odor-free' garlic and garlic 'pearls' on sale in the entrance of the non-stinking restaurant, even this garlic devotee found it hard to enjoy a meal where every dish on the menu is flavoured with it. Caponata and Forty Clove Chicken, OK, but followed by garlic ice- cream? Definitely a clove too far.

Until recently, garlic's powerful flavour alarmed Anglo-Saxon cooks. John Evelyn and Mrs Beeton described its smell as offensive, and in some parts of Britain it is still thought to be living dangerously if you so much as brush past the salad bowl with a clove. The contrast with Spain, Italy and France is dramatic.

There, where garlic is grown as an agricultural crop, it is used in abundance: in Provence, whole bulbs of garlic - still in their papery skins - are roasted until soft and golden; in Piedmont, bagna cauda - a rich garlic and anchovy sauce - is prepared for the annual grape harvest; and in Andalucia, joints of meat and game are studded with silver-white slivers of garlic and slowly cooked in wine. For gentle cooking (burnt garlic is very nasty indeed) transforms the strong, pungent taste of raw garlic into a mellow, buttery flavour.

Raw garlic, on the other hand, should be used with discretion. This is because the active ingredient in garlic, and hence its aroma, is released only when the clove is crushed. It should be added to a dish promptly, since stale garlic is not pleasant.

To prepare raw garlic for a dish, detach a clove from the bulb and peel away the papery skin, cut the clove in half lengthways and, if necessary, remove the green growing shoot in the centre, which can give a bitter taste. Place the split clove on a wooden chopping board; add a little salt and flatten sharply with the flat of a knife or a wooden mallet. Or crush the split clove in an alabaster mortar to make a paste. 'The lethal garlic press', as described by Elizabeth David, can produce an acrid taste.

How much garlic you add to a dish is, of course, a matter of personal taste. It also depends upon the quality and age of the garlic used. Though some older classic recipes advise far more, I find that a modest 2-4 fat cloves of new season's garlic make a superb, full-bodied aioli. In a china or glass bowl, and using a wooden spoon - metal implements can sometimes contribute a bitter flavour - simply crush the garlic and beat in 4 egg yolks, then gradually incorporate about 300ml of olive oil (or a mixture of olive oil and sunflower oil), starting drop by drop as you would for mayonnaise. Finally, adjust the flavour with a dash of lemon juice, wine vinegar or pastis.

Perhaps it is the almost magical powers attributed to garlic that have made it a celebratory food. In the south of France, at any time after the mid-summer festivals marking the garlic harvest, magnificent village feasts are held. Everyone takes part, sitting at long narrow tables set up in the shade of the village square. Huge, glistening bowls of aioli form the centrepiece, surrounded by platters of new potatoes, summer vegetables and brandade (salt cod), all washed down with plenty of the local wine. This splendid event occupying most of the day is known as Le Grand Aioli.

Now, this enthusiasm for garlic has taken root across the Atlantic. Such is the Californian craze for the stuff that publisher and self-confessed 'garlic nut' Lloyd J Harris has written a best-selling book on the subject, launched his Garlic Times newspaper and begun to hold annual garlic feasts with food prepared by the Berkeley chef, Alice Waters.

So what is it about garlic that made the pyramid builders demand a daily supply, qualified the plant as a tithe payment in medieval Italy, kept Count Dracula at bay, and still prompts herbalists all over the world to write books about its healing properties?

For centuries, garlic has been said to promote health and strength. Virgil declared it essential 'to maintain the strength of harvesters' and the classical world regarded it as a general tonic. In the past, Mediterranean newly-weds were served a thin garlic broth just before they took to their bed. The soup has survived the custom, and friends of mine in the Midi still prepare it as a light supper on Sunday evening after an especially good lunch.

Of course, true garlic fans are not surprised that some of the ancient health claims made for garlic are now supported by modern medical research. It seems that a regular diet of garlic - considered more effective when raw - lowers blood cholesterol and hypertension, eases asthma and counteracts atherosclerosis. Opera singers who munch garlic for the sake of their voices are utilising its antiseptic sulphur compounds. Could this have been the real reason why, in the plague that swept through north Oxford 150 years ago, the garlic-eating French clerics survived while their sweet-breathed and more socially-acceptable, garlic-free English brethren perished?

BAGNA CAUDA

Serves 6

2 oz butter

5 large cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

1 3/4 oz tin anchovy fillets, drained and mashed

8fl oz light olive oil

a selection of raw seasonal vegetables such as fennel, sweet peppers, celery, cardoons, cut into strips and bite-size pieces

Use a flame-proof earthenware dish or small heavy-based pan that can be carried to the table and kept warm, like a fondue pot.

Melt the butter in the dish or pan over a very low heat. Add the garlic and cook gently for 3-4 minutes until softened but not changed in colour. Stir in the anchovies and very gradually dribble in the olive oil, stirring all the time for 10-15 minutes. The sauce should just simmer, never boil. When velvet smooth and completely blended, serve with the vegetables arranged on a platter. Use forks to spear each piece of vegetable and dip it into the sauce.

LE GIGOT A L'AIL

Serves 8

1 leg of lamb

4-6 bulbs or heads of garlic

10-12 anchovy fillets

1/2 pint stock

1/2 teaspoon tomato puree

salt and freshly milled black pepper

Place the lamb in a roasting tin and make about 20 small cuts in it. Peel 2-3 cloves of garlic and cut into slivers. Insert a sliver of garlic and a piece of anchovy into each cut, and place the remaining anchovies in a criss-cross pattern over the joint. Roast in a moderate oven preheated to 375F/190C/Gas 5 for 1 1/2 -2 hours. Rest the meat in a warm place for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, peel the remaining cloves of garlic, halve them and remove any green shoots. Blanch in boiling water over high heat for 3 minutes. Drain and return to the pan with the stock, tomatoes and some pan juices. Cook, covered, for 20 minutes or until garlic is buttery soft. Puree the contents of the pan in a processor or through a sieve. Reheat the sauce, season and pour into a bowl or jug.-

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