What would French cuisine be without garlic? This pungent bulb has become one of the symbols of France. As often happens, personal experience led me to reflect on the role garlic plays in French culture, society – and especially gastronomy.
The thought of the garlicky lunch we should have had at Montauban today inspired this post. After visiting les Impôts (tax authorities), we felt a decent feed was in order. Tucked behind la place Nationale, ‘Le Contre Filet’ serves excellent steak, but it’s swathed in garlic. You carry a humming exclusion zone with you for a couple of days.
I said to the SF, ‘I bet they’ll be fermé exceptionnellement.’ Blow me, when we got there, a notice on the door said, ‘Fermé exceptionnellement’. So we made do with another, not quite so garlicky, restaurant in the corner of the cathedral square.
A bit of history
Garlic originated in Central Asia around 5,000 years ago. It was so highly prized that you could buy a slave in ancient Egypt for 7 kg of it while 18th-century Siberians paid their taxes in garlic. Now there’s an idea.
It first appeared in southwest France in the middle ages, brought like other items, such as saffron, by nomadic merchants. A legend relates that one of them had no money to pay for his dinner at Lautrec – now the centre of pink garlic cultivation – so he settled up with pink garlic cloves instead. The innkeeper planted them and they soon caught on.
Garlic in cooking
Reasons to use garlic in cooking are legion. It is a natural flavouring, contains no fat or artificial nasties and has been proved to confer significant health benefits, especially to the cardio-vascular system. Garlic is also easy to grow, provided it is planted in full sun and loamy, well-drained soil.
You can use garlic cloves in many ways in cooking:
- Finely chopped in stuffings.
- Crushed in sauces – but don’t brown it or it will taste bitter. A garlic press is un presse-ail in French.
- Thinly sliced and inserted with rosemary into slits in a gigot d’agneau (leg of lamb) or under the skin of a chicken or pintade (guinea fowl).
- Peeled and added whole to a casserole. Crush the garlic into the sauce once cooked, when it adds a creamy texture and delicate flavour, or leave the softened cloves whole.
- Rubbed onto sliced, toasted baguette before melting goat’s cheese or spreading olive oil and crushed tomatoes on top.
You can also roast the whole bulb in the oven and then squeeze the softened garlic onto toast. I haven’t tried this but I am assured that it is delicious.
Here is a recipe for a traditional southwest France broth, in which garlic is the main ingredient. The recipe varies between areas. Instead of duck fat, some use olive oil, which is not authentic to southwest France. But I don’t think walnut oil (which is local) would be right. Some also use a chopped onion in addition to the garlic.
Tourin à l’ail
Ingredients (for 4)
- One head of garlic (10+ cloves)
- 1 egg
- 1 litre water
- 1 tbsp duck fat or olive oil
- 1 level tbsp flour
- Few drops white wine vinegar
- Salt and pepper to taste
Peel the garlic cloves, crush slightly and fry gently in fat until lightly coloured. Add flour and stir, then water. Bring to the boil and then simmer for 15 minutes. Separate egg white and yolk. Beat yolk, add vinegar and add to soup, stirring to prevent it congealing. Add the egg white, stirring constantly. Add salt and pepper and serve, either on top of thin slices of stale bread or just as it is.
Countering the effects
But – oh la la! – what do you do about the inevitable effect on your breath? No wonder garlic is good for your health – it keeps all those microbe-carriers outside the exclusion zone. Brushing your teeth or eating mints doesn’t do the trick. Garlic gets into your system and is sweated out through your pores. Chewing cardamom or fennel seeds, parsley, basil, mint, lemon or thyme all help reduce the aroma of garlic on the breath. But nothing eradicates it completely. You – or, more importantly, your acquaintances – just have to grin and bear it.
Garlic is not a traditional crop in our immediate area. But it is grown in other parts of the greater southwest and several garlic fairs take place every year, notably:
- La fête de l’ail blanc (white garlic) every July at the bastide town of Beaumont-de-Lomagne (Tarn-et-Garonne). In addition to the tonnes of garlic on sale it also features a garlic peeling contest and a competition for the best tourin à l’ail.
- La fête de l’ail rose (pink garlic) in early August at Lautrec (Tarn). Not to be outdone, this includes competitions for the best pink garlic tart and for the longest manouille (a tress of garlic bulbs). It also boasts a ‘Miss Pink Garlic’ contest – the mind boggles.
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