Photo by Patricia Esteve
Garlic is a key ingredient in Catalan cuisine
Garlic (all in Catalan, ajo in Spanish) didn’t earn its nickname ‘the stinking rose’ for nothing, and more than any other vegetable it’s the one that gets the most bad press, a curse that goes back for centuries. Don Quixote advised Sancho Panza: “Don’t eat onions or garlic as it will make you vile of character.” The Don encountered the lovely Dulcinea del Toboso, who he’d dreamed of as a sweet-smelling maiden, only to discover that the stench of garlic about her was so intense that there was no other explanation but that an evil sorcerer had turned her into a peasant. He even threatened to stuff Don Clown, a.k.a. Sancho Panza, with garlic, tie him naked to a tree and give him 6,600 lashes. In the real-life 14th century, Alfonso de Castilla actually banned his courtiers from entering if they smelled of the stinking rose.
To this day, garlic still has a somewhat insalubrious reputation (Victoria Beckham managed to insult an entire nation when, on moving to Madrid, she complained they all reeked of garlic), and there are still plenty of people, including Spaniards, who associate garlic with being poor. Its strong taste and odour was capable of masking many a food stuff past its prime, and perhaps more significantly it was bread, oil and garlic that formed the backbone of many a dish prepared by Spanish peasants. As the Spanish food critic Xavier Domingo put it, “There are many cuisines of Spain, but they all have one thing in common: garlic.”
Spain now produces 200,000 tonnes of garlic a year, only a fifth of which is exported. As our eating habits have become more varied and welcoming of the strange and strongly flavoured, garlic—especially that from the unremarkable little town of Las Pedroñeras in La Mancha—has gone gourmet. In the last 50 years, the town’s population of around 6,500, nearly all of whom work in the garlic ‘industry’, have quadrupled their production, and their pride in local garlic is most evident every September at the annual garlic festival.
The region is famous for a particular kind of garlic called ajo morada, which has a fine, pink skin. The more abundant, pure white-skinned variety that you see wrapped up in pink net in the supermarket (the pink is designed to make you think you are getting a superior product) is usually imported from China, the biggest garlic producer in the world.
Ajo morada is milder flavoured, sweetish and crisp in texture, and the region’s restaurants in recent years have been smart to champion their culinary heritage. Today garlic-infused delicacies include the local gachas—the garlicky porridge studded with tocino (pork belly), chorizo (sausage flavoured with pimentón) and morcilla (blood sausage) that Sancho Panza so loved for breakfast and that is still a popular mid-morning snack in the region, and wild garlic foam in the best restaurants. Then there are warming soups of garlic, fried bread and egg, and Andalucia’s cooling ajo blanco, a chilled soup that combines garlic with water, fresh ground almonds, olive oil and Jerez vinegar, and is topped with moscatel grapes. And don’t forget roast suckling lamb, where the garlic appears to have literally melted into the flesh.
In Catalunya, a love of garlic is no less widespread, with many of the region’s most emblematic dishes relying on it, whether we’re talking pa amb tomaquet (where a raw clove of garlic is rubbed into the bread along with the tomato), alioli (fresh garlic cloves pounded together with olive oil until they form a paste) or the spectacular festa dish of lamb roasted with 12 heads of garlic. And March, the season of wild garlic (ajos tiernos), means omelettes studded with wild garlic shoots galore.
Inevitably, garlic has its roots in medicine and the good folk of Las Pedroñeras still start their day with a shot of raw, mashed garlic mixed up in hot water as a tonic against life’s ills. I also remember meeting a Madrileña in South America years ago, who swore by a clove of raw garlic every morning for breakfast for keeping the mosquitoes away. True to her word, she never got bit.
Which brings me nicely to the myths surrounding garlic. The ancient Greeks, who first cultivated garlic, actually made their women eat it, believing that the smell on their breath would keep them faithful. And in his Naturalis Historia, the Roman scholar Pliny suggested garlic as a means of remedying both snakebites and madness.
Roman Polanski’s film of 1967, Dance of the Vampires, popularised the belief that hanging a wreath of garlic around your bedpost would keep the bloodsuckers at bay. In Spain, this extended pretty much to any malignant spirit (it was the smell they couldn’t bear), and in certain places like Galicia, even today, some people believe that carrying around a clove of garlic in your pocket, or a whole bulb of it wrapped up in a handkerchief will avert the evil eye. Early pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago even purified their drinking water with it, but it wasn’t until 1858 that the French biologist Louis Pasteur finally came up with some scientific proof for the antiseptic qualities of the illustrious plant. Other health claims are that it can help treat viruses that are resistant to antibiotics, that regular consumption lowers your cholesterol and also reduces the risk of heart attack by 25 percent.
So choose a reason, and there are plenty to choose from, but make sure garlic occupies its rightful position of respect in your kitchen.
I first came across this recipe in Colman Andrews’s Catalan Cuisine, which I refer to time and again in all matters of culinary Catalunya. And I’m pleased to say that the restaurant Senyor Parellada (www.senyorparellada.com) remains one of the few places in Barcelona where it can reliably be found. It’s a fantastic dinner party dish, and one that’s relatively easy to make, served with trimmings of roast potatoes and a side of escalivada (Catalan roasted vegetables).
Lamb roasted with 12 heads of garlic (serves 4-6)
2 kg leg of lamb
12 heads of garlic
2 glasses white wine or dry sherry
Olive oil and Es Trenc black olive salt
Separate the garlic cloves from half the bulbs. Top and tail the other half leaving the bulb whole. Heat a centimetre of olive oil in a baking tray at 220ºC. Rub plenty of salt into the skin of the lamb. When the oil is hot, place it on a gas or electric ring to keep it hot, and place the leg of lamb in it so that it sears to a golden brown on all sides. Add the garlic (bulbs and cloves) to the pan and place back in the oven. Roast for 20 minutes and then pour on the wine or sherry. Lower the heat to 180ºC and cook for a further hour and 20 minutes. Take it out of the oven and leave to rest for 10 minutes before carving. Serve with a mix of bulbs and cloves, with the juices spooned over the top.