Indispensable to many cuisines and never shy on flavour, garlic is no doubt an important vegetable. Here, Tama Carey burrows a little deeper into this curious and mostly beloved ingredient.
By
O Tama Carey

15 Nov 2013 - 11:23 AM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2021 - 3:27 PM

An essential ingredient

Garlic belongs to the onion family and, depending on how it's prepared, its flavour can range from sharp and astringent to soft and sweet, with an almost caramel-like flavour. The finer it’s chopped, the more pungent it becomes, and beware, if cooked badly it can end up a bitter mess. My preference is whole cloves cooked slow; you're left with a much more mellow flavour.

 

Phil the farmer

The last sagra of each year [a one-off dinner celebrating one ingredient] at my restaurant, Berta, has become an annual garlic dinner, celebrated with my friend Phil Lavers. Garlic is a noble ingredient and a fitting finale for the year. Phil has an organic farm near Kangaroo Valley where he grows all sorts of delicious produce, including garlic. Four types are grown on his farm: Australian White; Pink Italian; Purple Monaro; and Giant Russian, or Elephant. He says it’s the most heartbreaking crop, as there’s so much room for error; too wet and the garlic rots in the ground, too hot and the cloves don’t form properly. Planted in April or May, the garlic harvest begins sometime in November and continues until just before Christmas. A troublesome crop, but well worth the effort.

 

Fresh to dried

Garlic can be used from the very beginning of its life, when it's referred to as young or fresh. This implies that the cloves have yet to form and what you have almost resembles leek, with the sharp hot taste. From there, you can get fresh garlic with formed cloves. This is particularly nice to use, as the skin around the cloves is still soft enough to be eaten and has the same garlic flavour, albeit subtler. I've even deep-fried the fine outer leaves to form gossamer-like crispy sheets with a faint garlic flavour. Towards the ends of the season, pretty purple orb-like flowers form, called scapes. They, along with their green stem, can also be eaten. The stem needs to be cooked and is particularly good in stir-fries, yet the flowers can be picked into petals and eaten raw. There is also the delicious black garlic, thought to be a Korean invention, in which whole heads are very slowly dried until black and sticky.

 

Some of the greats

One of my favourite and simplest pasta dishes is spaghetti aglio e olio, made with garlic, olive oil, black pepper and a little parmesan. Another delicious Italian dish is bagna cauda, the garlic traditionally cooked in milk to tame it slightly, paired with anchovies and butter and used traditionally as a dip for vegetables (it also goes very well with fish and meat). Plus, who doesn’t love a humble slice of buttery garlic bread?

 

Vampires, demons, werewolves and monsters

There is a lot of mythology and superstition surrounding garlic, the strong flavour and smell thought to ward off monsters. This line of thinking also runs into some religions such as Hinduism and Jainism, where people are taught that garlic stimulates heat and desire - things best avoided, apparently. People also often avoid eating garlic as they don’t want stinky breath. On the other side of that, there is the commonly held belief that garlic is very helpful in medicinal ways. I worked with one chef who, whenever someone complained of starting to feel a little sick, would make them swallow whole cloves of slightly bashed garlic.

 

Photographs by Benito Martin. Styling by Jerrie-Joy Redman-Lloyd.