Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Stinking Rose

Garlic is garlic by any other name, even when it’s called a rose. Nobody is quite sure why garlic is also known as ‘the stinking rose’ – especially as it is a member of the lily family. The ‘stinking’ part is obvious and perhaps a bulb of garlic does look like a white rose – from a distance, in a dimly lit room, after a few glasses of Côtes du Rhône. But the most likely explanation is the translation of the Greek ‘scorodon’ into ‘rose puante’ by a French doctor, Henri Leclerc, in a 1918 magazine article. It seems he was not a fan and indeed, since the dawn of time, garlic has been either feared or revered for its potent properties.

Early Greek military leaders gave garlic to their warriors going into battle, believing it would make them bold and fearless and thus ensure victory – although whether this was due to their newly-found courage or their raging halitosis is uncertain. The Romans fed garlic to their slaves and labourers to give them physical strength and planted fields of garlic in the countries they conquered, believing that its courage-giving properties would be transferred to the battlefield. Fortunately for them, garlic thrives almost everywhere.

Garlic – ail - has been cultivated in France since the time of the Ancient Gauls, whose recipe for a sauce called aillée – a mixture of ground garlic, almonds and breadcrumbs soaked in broth – is still used today. In the early Middle Ages, garlic was grown in the monastery gardens for medicinal purposes and Charlemagne was so convinced of its virtues that he had it planted in the Royal Gardens and ordered everyone to grow garlic in his own vegetable plot. Along with onions, leeks and most other vegetables, la rose puante had often been considered food for rough and ready peasants and unsuitable for more refined palates, but its curative powers had never been disputed. It was considered a remedy for everything from earache and arthritis to snake bite and tuberculosis. It was even used as protection against the plague and in 1762, so the story goes, four thieves from Marseilles drank a potion made from garlic, vinegar and herbs and set out to burgle abandoned houses without catching so much as a sneeze. It was just their luck that they were arrested and condemned to death. However, they did agree to divulge the recipe of their elixir in exchange for their lives - so whichever way you look at it, garlic was definitely a lifesaver.

For Napoleon, on the other hand, it proved to be his downfall. He became violently ill with stomach pains after the Battle of Dresden and was unable to join the General Vandamme at Kulm, where the French were subsequently defeated. Napoleon was convinced he’d been poisoned but the real culprit, according to the chancellor Pasquier, was the garlic in the stew he’d eaten the day before.

Even in modern times, garlic is appreciated for its antiseptic qualities. At the beginning of the twentieth century, children were sent to school wearing garlic necklaces to keep cold germs – and any potential friends – at bay. During the First World War, it was used to treat gangrene and septicaemia and recently, I was advised to apply a poultice of raw garlic to the corn on my little toe. In addition to the naturally pungent odour of my feet, this would have made life unbearable for my family, so I selflessly bought a packet of corn plasters instead.

Evidence suggests that garlic helps to control high blood pressure, lower cholesterol, improve circulation and cure impotence. Its reputation as an aphrodisiac, therefore, probably has some truth in it. The French king, Henri IV, used to eat a clove of raw garlic every morning for breakfast in order to satisfy his many female conquests. Henri had fourteen children so it must have worked, although one of his close (or at least standing at a reasonable distance) friends claimed that his breath could ‘fell an ox at twenty paces’.

Garlic is also purported to have magical powers and in the eighteenth century, country folk would hang braids of garlic over their doors to ward off evil spirits…and vampires. A recent theory suggests that ‘vampires’ were in fact rabies sufferers and their heightened sense of smell – which accounts for their fear of garlic – was simply a symptom of the disease, along with a dislike for bright light, insomnia and a desire to bite other people. Hmm. Sounds like someone I know…

Planted in early spring, garlic is harvested in summer when several villages – all of them claiming to be the garlic capital of France - hold a Fête de l’ail. There are competitions for the most artistic garlic arrangement, the tastiest garlic pie, the longest garlic braid…and a Beauty Pageant, the winner of which is awarded her own weight in garlic. And if you’re wondering what anyone would do with all that garlic, that’s not a problem. It can be dried, smoked (as in kippers, obviously), pickled or pureed. It can be made into soup or aïoli (a sort of garlic mayonnaise) or mixed with butter and spread on snails. It can even be turned into odourless pills for those who can’t bear the smell because whatever they say, chewing parsley doesn’t work – it just looks like your teeth have gone mouldy. And if you’re still not convinced, take heart because you’re in good company. Louis XV, Horace and Shakespeare were all passionate garlic haters and – apart from Louis who got his head chopped off – it never did them any harm, did it?


angela said...

I can't get enough of it and chewing parsley will remove the smell from your breath.
Thick lightly toasted pain de campagne rubbed with a fresh clove of garlic and with olive oil drizzled over it tastes magic with a glass of mulled wine, or any wine in fact.

Gigi said...

I must admit I love it too. Have you ever made garlic soup? I only make it when I know I won't be socializing for a while...:-)

Must try your bread and olive oil thingy

Pam said...

As a garlic lover, I thoroughly enjoyed this post! I sure am getting an interesting education reading your blog. More fun than 'school' and no homework! Cheers to that!

Sarah said...

One of our local restaurants offers bread with the meal. No surprises there, but in the basket are a clove of garlic and half a tomato. You rub the garlic onto the thickly-sliced pain de compagne, then rub the tomato and drizzle with olive oil which is also on the table along with the salt and pepper.
You almost don't need to order anything else!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post! I was reading about Garlic today, and it's benefits. But one problem is the taste

Gigi said...

Pam...I get an interesting education writing it - the research is fascinating!

Sarah...I'm just going to haveto try this... you mean you don't like the taste??!!