Saturday, July 19, 2014

Garlic: History, Uses, and How to Grow It

Garlic is a very old food used by many different civilizations. To learn more about its history, uses, and how to grow it, continue reading.

Garlic is one of the oldest food plants known to civilization.  No other herb has been used by so many different cultures for so many culinary and medicinal purposes. Originating somewhere in South Central Asia, the first usage of this hardy plant is lost in the mists of pre-historic times, perhaps stretching back to the days of semi-nomadic hunter-gathers over 10,000 years ago.  It evolved over the centuries as a semi-domesticated food in three basic geographic regions: Eastern Europe, Eastern Asia, and Central Asia.  Romans loved garlic, and dispersed it widely in the packs of Roman soldiers, who found it easy to carry with them as a food supplement believed to give the warriors strength and courage. 

Its importance in folklore is emphasized by the frequency with which it is found in ancient tombs.  For example, the tomb of El Mahasna in Egypt was constructed in 3750 B.C., before the reign of the first pharaohs.  There archeologists found detailed models of garlic bulbs placed near the sarcophagus to ward off evil and ensure a safe journey for the soul.   And, in the tomb of King Tut, who reigned 2,000 years later, six dried, but perfectly preserved, heads of garlic were found among the elaborate trappings that accompanied royalty in the grave.  Garlic was revered among commoners as well.  In 1500 B.C. an architect named Kha was buried in a modest tomb, yet even here the excavation revealed a woven basket of foodstuffs including garlic, preserved along with common kitchen utensils and crude pieces of furniture.  Clearly garlic played an immensely important role in the lives of people living before the time of Christ.  This view is reinforced by inscriptions deciphered on the walls of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, which detailed the quantities of radishes, onions, and garlic consumed by the laborers who built this mighty edifice.

Garlic was clearly used in biblical times.  The Israelites, struggling in the desert under the leadership of Moses, longed for the bountiful food that they had enjoyed in Egypt.  They lamented, “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic, but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” [Numbers 11:5-6]  In 1274, Marco Polo visited the Chinese city of Yunnan and saw the inhabitants eating meats seasoned with garlic.  And, in modern times, Albert Schweitzer utilized garlic in Africa to combat cholera, typhus, and amoebic dysentery. 

Today garlic is primarily a culinary treat, and its medicinal use is not widely employed, at least in developed countries.  But throughout the centuries it has been heralded as an important item in the medicine chest, used to combat a wide variety of ailments, including colds, flu symptoms, coughs, earache, fever, bronchitis, shortness of breath, sinus congestion, headache, stomachache, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, diarrhea, gout, rheumatism, whooping cough, pinworms, ulcers, and snakebites.  In many cultures, it was even valued as an aphrodisiac!  It has been eaten as fresh cloves or used in syrups, tinctures, powders, tablets, and teas.  

There are two basic kinds of garlic, commonly called hardneck and softneck varieties.  Within these two broad categories, many types of garlic are available from various supply houses, but in grocery stores the kind inevitably found is some type of softneck garlic, simply because it keeps much longer than hardnecks.  Therefore, most people associate the garlic flavor that they incorporate into their culinary delights with the taste of softneck garlic; however, hardnecks are definitely more flavorful even if they don’t store as long – a matter of three or four months as opposed to a year.  If you are a garlic lover, you might want to consider obtaining some hardneck bulbs to grow in your garden.  The cultivation is not difficult at all. In the fall, order some garlic from the catalog of a reputable seed company, or obtain a variety that you like from a farmers’ market. 

  • Plant garlic in September/October, four to six week before the first frost is expected, so that the cloves have plenty of time to set sturdy roots before winter. 
  • The soil should be well drained, ideally amended with organic matter.
  • Separate the individual cloves from the bulb, planting each clove, flat side down, in a hole the depth of which is twice the length of the garlic. 
  • Space the plantings about four to six inches apart, and mulch with straw or shredded leaves.
  • Plants will emerge in the spring. If you have planted a hardneck variety, the plants will send up a sterile seed head called a scape in early summer.  Break off the scape to enhance the size and quality of the garlic bulb to be harvested in late summer. Softneck varieties usually do not have a scape.
  • Harvest in July when about two thirds of the leaves have turned brown.
  • To store garlic, hang it in a cool, aerated area for two or three weeks until the outer membranes are dry.  Garlic should not be cleaned until drying has occurred to prevent contamination.         
Many wonderful recipes include garlic in the preparation.  If you have been cooking with softneck garlic from the grocery store, you may be pleasantly surprised if you substitute a hardneck variety.  Many people enjoy roasted garlic as a spread.  While roasting can be accomplished in the microwave, the flavor is greatly enhanced if garlic is oven roasted.  To do this, do not remove the skins, trim the top of the bulb, exposing the tips of all the cloves.  Place the bulb, tip end up, in an oven-proof container.  Sprinkle the top with olive oil and salt lightly.  Bake in an oven preheated to 375 degrees for about an hour.  When the roasted garlic has cooled, tear off the cloves and squeeze the garlic onto bread, toast, or crackers.  This delicacy is also delightful spread on a sturdy cheese such as Gouda.

So, expand your horizons!  Choose one of the over 50 different varieties of garlic, grow your own, and enjoy a wonderful taste thrill.  Roasted garlic is unbelievably sweet, with a rich, creamy texture that is quite different from the pungent taste of the raw clove.  And, if you are lucky, it will give you the strength and courage of a Roman soldier!  Happy eating!

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