Garlic provides that hint of things foreign
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.