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Food and Drink: I smell reasonably healthy

Autumn is traditional garlic time, and garlic is a big subject: socially unacceptable in some quarters, medicinally recommended, and gastronomically almost universal. The socially unacceptable part of garlic, its lingering smell on the breath, is one of those things fixed in time: connected with the old Paris Metro, smoke-filled, garlic- breathed, body-odoured, bereted and so Gallic that many Briton quailed.

The Metro is no longer that way. It is not free of odours, but the French diet has changed radically in the past 30 years and so, post- prandially, has the Metro.

I myself felt an affinity for that older form of Frenchness. There were places, a while back, where one could knock back a few glasses of macon for breakfast, chew a clove of garlic with a few bits of crusty bread and go out into the morning quite merry. And at a time when most working people still ate their main meal in the middle of the day, the garlic concentration, in a tomato vinaigrette, a salad, almost any main dish, was great enough to guarantee an effect.

Considering that these dwellers in happy times also smoked Gauloises in quantity, quaffed most of a litre of rather crude red wine at a sitting, and felt no need to be 'nice', I suppose those were also smelly times.

But we live in a regrettably deodorised society (how well would dogs get along if they could not smell each other?) and some concessions to the times are necessary. After all, garlic became part of our diet when we lived and worked mainly outdoors; it was never intended to be eaten in such quantities in a civilisation of enclosed spaces.

As is true of almost anything in the food domain, individual tolerances to garlic vary prodigiously; and it is also one of those smells that is the less notable the more it is prevalent. Where it is universally used, as in China or Spain, it passes amost unnoticed: you will yourself have consumed enough to make you oblivious to its smell on others - this being a secret well known to lovers in the immediate post-war years, when garlic (with its connotations of 'the Continent') was like a shared sin.

Garlic also has its paradoxical aspects: for instance, that more means less. That notorious dish, the aoli, or a true garlic soup in which whole cloves, laced with a little olive oil, sit on crusts of bread, produces almost no socially unacceptable results.

It really is a matter of digestibility. Garlic oil, while it is widely touted (and rightly so) as an intestinal and lung purifier, as a tonic (strong as quinine), as a heart stimulant, as a liquifier of blood, as a remedy for gout or arthritis, is pungent stuff.

It has been scientifically demonstrated, for instance, that garlic (taken a clove a day) will make a significant dent in one's cholesterol level - if you are one of those who still worries about that. But it remains pungent, even as medicine. There are ways in which it goes down easily (when blended with other things) and ways in which it alone triumphs.

One of my favourite dishes is Spanish angulas (baby eels or elvers) al ajo. This is no more than elvers (which do not have a great deal of taste, but a wonderful texture when cooked) drowned in Spanish olive oil with a massive dose of garlic and chopped fresh chilli peppers. It is a superb dish, but hardly readily absorbed into the system.

It is my theory, for which I can offer no evidence, that one of the least digestible ways of eating garlic is to combine it with any great quantity of oil. A salad overloaded with garlic (in a proper salad, the bowl is rubbed with garlic, garlic is not chopped in); a bruschetta soaked in oil and grilled with garlic; a Sicilian fish-fry; all are potently durable. You will taste the garlic for 24 hours.

Then, too, there is the way in which some cooks handle garlic: not just too liberally, but also impatiently. If, for instance, you are preparing the basic soffritto from which most Italian dishes (from pasta sauces to risotto) begin, then the combining of olive oil with garlic must be accomplished with the greatest of care.

Garlic that has begin to burn has no taste of garlic at all: it resembles torched timbers. If, on the other hand, you undercook the garlic, then you are in for a bad time (the same is true with onions). If the recipe says to cook garlic until it is 'golden', do just that. It must have wilted thoroughly and have just begun to change colour.

Despite all of its social downside, I can think of no other ingredient without which I would feel I could not cook. And because this is true for many cooks, most people who care about food also care about their garlic. The rule for garlic, as for most foods, is that it should be very fresh. True, garlic kept properly aired will last a long time; but it will never be as good as when, as you slice it, the juice actually spurts out from the blade.

My advice is: do not buy it boxed under any circumstances; by all means pick it out, bulb by bulb, from a greengrocer who has a lot and replaces his stock regularly; remember that the pink bulb, common in the South of France, is more delicate in flavour than the white. In cooking, do not abuse; remember that garlic chopped very fine blends better than garlic sliced in great big bits - and that a soupcon will go a long way.