British Garlic


Those of a certain vintage will remember when garlic was most definitely not British.  To older generations it epitomised all that was wrong with foreign food.  Now its place in British cooking is firmly established.  A clove of crushed garlic is added as a seasoning to most recipes that begin with chopped onion.  The Isle of Wight has become so synonymous with garlic that several varieties have been developed here, although it will grow pretty much throughout the UK.  Traditionally, garlic planted on the shortest day of the year (December 21) should be ready to harvest on the longest day (June 21st) although planting can begin as early as October or indeed, provided you choose a variety specifically designed for planting in the spring, as late as March.  June is when we look forward to fresh ‟wet” garlic, perfect for roasting whole.

As with any “seasoning” the correct amount is hugely personal, and individuals do vary in the way their bodies process garlic.  The cause of the pungent smell is allicin, a sulphur containing molecule, which is released when the garlic cells are ruptured.  These sulphur molecules are absorbed into the bloodstream and escape when we breathe, and through our perspiration.  Getting rid of the smell on your hands after handling garlic is easy, the little stainless steel “soap” you can buy works because stainless steel binds the sulphur molecules.  Getting rid of the smell after you have eaten garlic is somewhat more difficult.  The common accompaniment to garlic is parsley and, when chewed raw, this does help, but sadly the only real answer is 24 hours of normal bodily functions to flush it out!

There is a considerable difference between garlic that is consumed raw and that which has been cooked although not as great a difference as I had thought and discovered whilst on holiday with friends.  They had young children and we took it in turns to eat out or babysit.  One evening I ate a delicious whole bulb of garlic, roasted, as an accompaniment to lamb.  It tasted sweet and mild, and I suffered no unpleasant aftertaste.  The following evening my friends chose the same dish and, when I complained about the smell the next day, they told me they were getting their own back!

Despite the disappointing discovery that if you aren’t experiencing any after affect from eating garlic it doesn’t mean that neither is anyone else, my own capacity to enjoy garlic is largely determined by whether it is eaten raw or cooked.  Raw garlic does, for me, produce an unpleasant burning sensation in the mouth and an aftertaste that lingers throughout the next day.  What might have been enjoyable at the time ceases to remain so.  Elizabeth David, who is largely responsible for introducing the British to garlic in Mediterranean food as opposed to curries which had formed the bulk of their previous experience, notoriously blamed garlic presses for the unpleasant aftertaste.  Writing in Tatler in 1986, she records her delight in finding that in John Tovey she had an ally on the subject.  He regarded them as “utterly useless objects”.  Elizabeth David wrote …‟I’d go further than that.  I regard garlic presses as both ridiculous and pathetic, their effect being precisely the reverse of what people who buy them believe will be the case.  Squeezing the juice out of garlic doesn’t reduce its potency, it concentrates it and intensifies the smell.  I have often wondered how it is that people who have used one of these diabolical instruments don’t notice this and forthwith throw the thing in the dustbin.  Perhaps they do but won’t admit it.”

Both John Tovey and Elizabeth David agreed that the best method was to crush a peeled clove of garlic lightly with the back edge of a really heavy knife blade.  It certainly saves the bother of cleaning the garlic press, although it is a good idea to reserve a board solely for crushing garlic to prevent transferring the taste of garlic to the next thing you chop, however carefully you have cleaned the board.  I was given a tiny board for this purpose years ago and still use it to this day.  I have to confess that I do also own a garlic press and, when used to add a single clove of garlic to the base of a casserole or other long-cooked dish, I can’t detect any over-powering taste.  However, for any dish where the garlic is to be consumed raw, or lightly cooked, I do revert to my board and knife blade.  I also purchased this beautiful looking pottery garlic spiral:

It was made by the wonderful potter John Leach and I couldn’t resist it.  However, it does involve using your fingers to rub the cut clove around the spiral (smelly) and then you have to transfer the paste to the dish you are making and wash the fiddly spiral, so I quickly reverted to the board and knife blade method.

A pestle and mortar can be used when you require a very fine paste, for example when making aioli, but make sure you have a smooth mortar not one of rough granite or it is a bugger to clean.

Whichever way you prepare your garlic, the fact remains that when eating it raw it is very pungent. When do we want to eat it raw?  I gave the example of aioli above, but there are plenty more examples and several different approaches to ameliorating the harshness of raw garlic.  One already mentioned is pairing it with plenty of raw parsley – the Italian Gremolata also includes grated lemon, another ingredient that help counteract the harshness.  Sometimes it is appropriate to blanch the garlic briefly, this is what I do when making pesto.  Likewise, when making Babaganoush, the garlic slices are roasted with the aubergine rather than added raw.  The Southern American condiment of Chimichurri, which accompanies meats, especially steak, also includes plenty of chopped parsley and, it should be noted, is also left to infuse for several hours, like a marinade, which may in itself tame some of the rawness.

Then there is the Italian habit of bruising a clove of raw garlic by rubbing it over a slice of tasted bread.  Even then the taste is quite pungent, which is fine if you want it to be the dominant flavour but less so if you are topping the toast with other ingredients, such as chopped tomato and basil.  For this sort of thing I prefer to use garlic infused oil.  You can make your own, although you need to remember to do so several hours in advance.  Finely slice a peeled clove of garlic into a pan of olive oil and heat very gently.  The garlic may be allowed to brown lightly before being left to infuse but on no account should it turn darker than this as burnt garlic has a very acrid flavour and is the reason why it is always added to onions in the final minute of their cooking rather than at the beginning.

I was given a bottle of Lunaio garlic infused olive oil and since that first bottle I can’t bear to be without it in my store cupboard.  The infusion is done at ambient temperature over several days so that it doesn’t affect the quality of the cold-pressed olive oil.  The flavour of garlic is quite intense although not harsh, so that often I can mix just a couple of tablespoonfuls with other olive oil.  This is what I do with hummous and other dips.  You can taste and adjust to the strength you desire.  Ideal.

Black Garlic is a fairly recent ingredient in the UK, which can be used without fear of overdoing it.  In fact, its lack of pungency means that you can eat whole cloves without fear.  Black Garlic is aged until it becomes so sweet it has been likened to Balsamic vinegar.  It doesn’t cook down like a normal clove of garlic so needs to be chopped quite finely to disperse it throughout a dish.

The fact that you can eat whole cloves of Black Garlic as a snack makes it an ideal way of enjoying the health benefits of garlic without the smell, although you can also buy odourless capsules if you want to take it for health.  So, what are the health benefits?  The list is varied and impressive, including curing warts, protecting against MRSA and food poisoning, lowering cholesterol and blood pressure.  It was first suggested to me whilst suffering from a stubborn chesty cough for its decongestant properties (which are similar to those found in any of the allium family).  That is can also act as a decongestant for the blood by lowering cholesterol is, in my view, a better option than putting everyone over the age of 50 on statins.  Of course, I am not qualified to comment on the use of garlic in health, but it may be something you want to explore further.

Yes, garlic certainly seems to be firmly embedded in today’s British food culture, albeit with a lighter hand than is used in other parts of the world.

Useful websites for further information:



Chimichurri Recipe

This is my preferred proportions but feel free to adjust to your own taste.  There is no one authentic recipe for Chimichurri.


2 large cloves of garlic

Teaspoon of coarse sea salt

3 tablespoons of chopped fresh parsley

1 tbsp chopped fresh oregano

2 tbsps red wine vinegar

4 tbsps olive oil


Finely chop the garlic then sprinkle with sea salt and crush with the flattened blade of a large knife (or you could do this with a pestle and mortar). Transfer the garlic to a bowl containing the red wine vinegar and whisk in the olive oil.  Stir in the freshly chopped herbs and leave to infuse for at least 2 hours before serving over grilled meat.


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