Gar­lic pro­vides that hint of things for­eign

Marlborough Express - - COMMENT&OPINION - JOE BEN­NETT

Ilike to cook. That sen­tence would have as­ton­ished my fa­ther. And this next one would have ap­palled him: I cook with gar­lic. ‘‘What’s the point of fight­ing a war,’’ my fa­ther would have said, ‘‘only to see your son go over to the other side?’’

My fa­ther, like us all, was of his time. Had my mother died or run away when we were grow­ing up he’d have had to re­marry within days or we’d have starved. As far as he was con­cerned, food emerged from kitchens much as ba­bies emerged from wives. We should be grate­ful, he would have said, for both, but it would be wrong, and quite pos­si­bly dan­ger­ous, for a man to look too closely into ei­ther. A man had work to do, and cricket.

My mother fed us on a thinlyspread sin­gle in­come. Car­bo­hy­drates dom­i­nated in the form of bread, pota­toes and sponge cake. There was the oc­ca­sional car­rot or parsnip but the only vegetable you could rely on year round was the sausage. It was a diet to hor­rify today’s nu­tri­tion­ists. That it pro­duced four healthy chil­dren tempts me to rail once more at those nu­tri­tion­ists’ leafy-green evan­ge­lism, but I shall re­frain for car­dio­vas­cu­lar rea­sons. And be­sides, my sub­ject is gar­lic.

It seems as­ton­ish­ing in these days of su­per­mar­kets – it seems, in­deed, like a de­tail from pre­his­tory – but I can re­mem­ber French­men rid­ing bi­cy­cles around the south of Eng­land, sell­ing onions. The onions came in plaited skeins, draped over the han­dle­bars like strings of plump brown pearls. The French­men even wore berets. But they never sold gar­lic.

Though gar­lic would have been a lighter and more prof­itable load, they knew they’d be wast­ing their time. The post­war English house­wife was as likely to cook with gar­lic as she was with ar­senic. The only thing she knew gar­lic was good for was the fend­ing off of vam­pires, and vam­pires were in short sup­ply round our way. They be­longed, like gar­lic, to histri­onic Europe.

Gar­lic, in short, was the em­bod­i­ment of for­eign­ness and the fount of all hal­i­to­sis. Like Catholi­cism and Ital­ian foot­ballers it was overblown, pungent and fun­da­men­tally wrong. It lacked Protes­tant re­straint.

So I left home, like us all, a prod­uct of my up­bring­ing, un­able to cook and un­tainted by gar­lic. But my first adult job was teach­ing in Spain. And there gar­lic was hard to avoid. In Zaragoza’s cen­tral mar­ket an old man sat be­side a bar­row. ‘‘Tengo ajo,’’ he bel­lowed from 10 in the morn­ing till the siesta claimed him, ‘‘blanco como la leche,’’ – I have gar­lic, white as milk – though how he knew I don’t know be­cause he was blind.

I was poor but this was Spain of the pe­seta and life was good and strong and cheap. I lived on ta­pas, morsels set out on the bar. Ev­ery­thing was drenched in olive oil, a flavour new to me. And gar­lic abounded, though I didn’t al­ways know that’s what it was. But I did know I liked the taste of blood­thick Mediter­ranean in­ten­sity. It made my north­ern up­bring­ing seem milky and in­sipid. In­deed, if I’d been 10 years older I think I would have stayed in Spain. But I was young and my feet were keen to tread a few more roads.

Over the fol­low­ing decade it seemed that ev­ery­where I went had known the joys of gar­lic for as long as they’d been cook­ing, ex­cept

It seems as­ton­ish­ing in these days of su­per­mar­kets – it seems, in­deed, like a de­tail from pre­his­tory – but I can re­mem­ber French­men rid­ing bi­cy­cles around the south of Eng­land, sell­ing onions.

for the English-speak­ing bits that topped and tailed the globe. Why, I can­not tell you. The stuff grows per­fectly well in cool cli­mates.

Now that my feet have donned slip­pers and put them­selves up I’ve taken an in­ter­est in cook­ing in gen­eral and gar­lic in par­tic­u­lar. Cook­ing is the most ephemeral of arts. Ars longa, said the an­cients, vita bre­vis, but cook­ing is the art that doesn’t hang around on gallery walls. No age­ing bil­lion­aire can buy it to stiffen his sense of self. Cook­ing grat­i­fies our urge to make, but then it’s gone with the sun­set and starts again each dawn.

And at the heart of all my cook­ing is gar­lic. Siz­zle sesame oil with gar­lic, gin­ger and soy and the kitchen swells to the whole of Asia. Siz­zle olive oil and gar­lic and the kitchen starts telling a rosary. I am never with­out gar­lic. It gives heart to ev­ery dish. I have even just planted my first crop of it. (As be­fits a vam­pire-de­ter­rent, it goes in on the short­est day of the year and comes out on the long­est.) And as for my fa­ther, well, he’ll never know.

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