Strong Headed: Garlic in Spanish Cuisine


A Poor Man's Food

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 odor 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.”

Gourmet Garlic

Spain now produces over 200,000 tonnes of garlic a year, and is the second largest garlic exporter in the world. As our eating habits have become more varied and welcoming of the strange and strongly flavored, 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 morado, 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 morado is milder flavored, 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 flavored 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 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 and olive oil), allioli (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. Springtime brings with it wild garlic (ajos tiernos) and 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.

A Cure for Snakebites and Madness

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 The Elder suggested garlic as a means of remedying both snakebites and madness.

Roman Polanski’s film of 1967, Dance of the Vampires, popularized 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.

So choose a reason, and there are plenty to choose from, but make sure garlic occupies its rightful position of respect in your kitchen.

Back to topbutton