Vin rouge for la vie en rose

Presumably it was on medical grounds that our supermarket quadrupled the size of its wine shelves
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The Independent Culture
IT COMES as no surprise to learn that, according to the latest medical report (by the National Heart Forum), we as a nation are dying less of chronic heart disease than we did 10 years ago. What does surprise me is that nowhere in the report is the magic word garlic mentioned. Much is made of the fact that we're drinking more red wine and that red wine, especially the Cabernet Sauvignon variety, contains a natural anti-cholesterol ingredient which burns up excess fat.

Presumably it was on medical grounds that the supermarket across the road changed its layout recently and quadrupled the size of its wine department, and particularly its stock of half bottles of red wine, so much more convenient for frail little old ladies (like me) to slip into their baskets along with a tin of sardines and a nice apple turnover.

I'm perfectly happy to go along with the red wine theory. Writing in a medical journal called Heart some time ago, a French doctor came up with the following statistics. In Toulouse, 75 out of 100,000 people die from heart disease. In Belfast, 348 out of 100,000 die from coronary-related diseases and, in Glasgow, it's even higher, 380. Alors, concluded M le Medecin, if the natives of Glasgow and Belfast drank as much red wine as the good burghers of Toulouse, instead of all that filthy stout and Scotch, their hearts would be in better nick.

Maybe so, but you could say the same about garlic, which may not have been the subject of the survey but was almost certainly consumed in the same proportions, per capita, as red wine in Toulouse, Belfast and Glasgow. I have long subscribed to the view that garlic is a cure-all for most diseases, especially the coronary kind, an opinion shared by many of my French, Italian and Polish friends. "Oh, you mean Continentals," my late auntie Winnie would have said, pursing her lips as if she'd bitten on a lemon. Continentals basically meant anyone who wasn't born in Pinner. Well, maybe they are but they're also incredibly healthy.

My friend Woytek, a Pole, whose family has a history of heart disease, chews whole cloves of raw garlic as others chew gum. At 60 he can ski like a teenager. When he was a child his mother, he told me, used to stuff the toes of his boots with garlic to stop him catching cold as he walked to school.

My French friend Annalise puts garlic in everything, including her Christmas cake, and feeds garlic capsules to her dog to cure its breathlessness. It's a very old, very smelly, very bad-tempered dog and the sooner it is relieved of its breath, most of her friends and family agree, the better. But Annalise is soft-hearted.

It seems that the supermarket across the road has been taking advice from Continentals because it now sells not one, but four varieties of garlic. As well as drinking more red wine, we also appear to be eating more garlic, which is probably why we're not falling off our perches as much as we were from heart attacks. We used to be so priggish about garlic. "Ugh, you smell like a Spanish waiter," my fastidious room-mate would say to her boyfriends. Ten years later she took her kids on holiday to Fuengirola and ran off with one. Garlic is a funny thing. If you chew it raw, like Woytek, it smells perfectly pleasant. If you cook it for hours it doesn't smell at all. It's only if you fry it for 10 minutes that the aroma seems to linger behind your teeth for days.

It was my Italian friend Lucia who taught me to roast whole cloves of garlic in their skins, sprinkled with olive oil, and then squeeze them like toothpaste on to toast as a cure for heartburn. Or hiccups. Or just because they're delicious. I saw her yesterday and we talked about the heart report. "Darleeeng," said Lucia. "Garlic is good for the health, of course, but irrigation is better."

She had just come back from two weeks in a Portuguese detox clinic where she had eaten no garlic, no food at all in fact, just organic fruit juice and Thyllium Husk three times a day. She was now totally cleansed - her blood, her skin, her heart.

Thyllium Husk, apparently, is a natural fibre which can absorb 50 times its own weight in toxins. What was the point of the Thyllium Husk?, I said. Lucia said it helped wash out toxins that had been festering in your intestines for years, poisoning your system, clogging your blood. For the first time in her life, she said, she felt pure. Did she look pure? Well, I said, hedging. "Darleeeng, if you could only see what they found in my intestines. There were traces of mother's milk. Imagine, 35- year- old milk." I'd rather not. Come on, let's chew some some garlic, it's easier, I said.