With such qualities, it is not surprising that garlic is a highly prized, ubiquitous commodity, with a history of cultivation that predates written records. As with other long-domesticated plants, garlic's wild origins are uncertain, but were probably the rocky steppes of central Asia. There are carvings of garlic dating back to 3750BC, and one of the less celebrated finds within the extraordinary 3,500-year-old tomb of Tutankhamun were six dried, but perfectly preserved, garlic cloves, presumably included so that the poor chap could continue to enjoy his meals in the after life.
Garlic is an essential constituent of nearly all the world's great cuisines, but it has been even more valued for its therapeutic properties.
The Egyptians doled it out for heart problems, intestinal worms, headaches and tumours; in India it was employed as an antiseptic, and the Chinese brewed up garlic tea to treat such nasties as cholera and dysentery. In Europe it was used as protection against bubonic plague (the mortality statistics must cast doubt on its effectiveness here) and more recently, during both world wars, as a wound disinfectant. To this day it remains a popular "herbal" remedy for an amazingly diverse array of complaints.
When it comes to hard medical fact, scientific research has led even such august publications as the British Medical Journal to concede that some garlic preparations (the less processed, the better) have a beneficial effect on certain pathological processes. Most significant is its influence on cardiovascular disease by reducing blood cholesterol, lowering blood pressure and discouraging inappropriate clot formation. There is evidence, too, that garlic has widespread antibacterial and antifungal properties and affords limited protection against some cancers.
All this might be enough to persuade you to consume quantities of garlic even if it tasted foul, but, of course, it doesn't. As an unrepentant garlicophile, I am driven to despair by timid English recipes that never prescribe more than a single clove. I add a minimum of three on principle and have not yet encountered garlic overkill. However, studies of our shopping habits are beginning to suggest that the ultra-cautious British palate is at last waking up to the overwhelming wonderfulness of this bulb.
Garlic is commonly associated with Mediterranean cultures (though more is eaten per head in the Far East) and it is this, perhaps, that has created the fallacy that garlic does not grow well in our cooler climate. It is in reality bone hardy, prolific and unfussy and, unlike some aromatic herbs, it will develop as fine a flavour here as anywhere.
Garlic is traditionally planted on the longest day of the year and harvested on the shortest. Other sources recommend spring planting. Both should be ignored. Plant instead from late October to late November as garlic benefits from a long growing season, and many varieties require several weeks of cold to develop properly. On heavy, poorly drained soils it may be wise to set the cloves initially into pots, and delay the final planting out until early the following spring.
Simply take a garlic bulb and break it into separate cloves. Plant these 15cm apart each way in a sunny spot. They are prone to all the ugly diseases of their onion relatives, including white rot and eelworm, so it is a wise precaution to include them in a rotation of crops. The usual advice is to set each clove around 5cm deep but I have reaped heavier harvests by planting them up to twice this depth, so you may wish to experiment. This may sound insulting, but do be sure to plant them the right way up - pointed tip upwards, flat root-plate downwards.
Apart from the odd bit of weeding, that's about all you need to worry about. The following summer the leaves will begin to yellow, at which point the garlics are ready for lifting. Delay until the foliage has died right down, and there is a risk that the cloves will begin to sprout again. Be careful not to bash them about, as they bruise easily at this stage and will then rot in store.
Put the harvested garlic somewhere warm and dry (indoors, if necessary) for a week or so, until the outer skins are dry and papery. If you're in the mood you can then plait them into a garlic rope, but hanging them up in loose bunches in a cool, airy place is perfectly adequate.
Varieties differ considerably in how long they will store. Some have only a short dormant period and will not keep much beyond November. Long dormancy types, which include most available in this country, should see you right the way through to the following year's harvest, making self- sufficiency in garlic a real possibility.
The garlic grown in different parts of the world differs in other significant characteristics as well, but the reality at present is that little choice is available.
Most commercially produced British garlic is grown on the Isle of Wight and this is the usual source of the garlic sold through seed catalogues and garden centres, some with a specific name, but more often not. This at least means that it has a record of performing well under British conditions.
Having said that, I have had my best crops from a much larger Continental variety called 'Cristo'. In the past I have had perfectly acceptable results from garlic bought from the supermarket. However, there is a risk that an imported variety will not grow well under British conditions. More significantly, there is no way of guaranteeing that it is free of serious virus or nematode infestation that will wreak havoc.
Garlic 'Cristo' and other Continental varieties are available from Jennifer Birch, Garfield Villa, Belle Vue Road, Stroud, Gloucestershire (01453 750371).