Garlic is one of the staples of French cooking but just what is the history of garlic in France and just how much garlic do french people eat?
Garlic’s French connections
Garlic is about as French a vegetable as you can get. Extensively used in French cuisine, you can buy smoked, fresh, green, violet, pink, giant and all sorts of garlic at most markets throughout France with regional specialities galore from the north to the south.
Garlic is a native plant of Central Asia but it seems that we must thank the Romans for the proliferation of garlic in France. Roman soldiers were issued with garlic to take on campaign; the belief being that garlic inspired and gave courage. The generals had garlic planted for the armies to use in situ and the banks of garlic plants prospered.
There are plenty of legends about the qualities of garlic and have been for centuries. In the middle Ages it was thought that soaking garlic cloves in vinegar could help ward off the plague; there was an old wife’s tale that wearing a clove of garlic in one’s shoe could prevent whooping cough and of course we all know that wearing a clove or bulb of garlic round the neck will keep vampires at bay! In 1858, Louis Pasteur proved that garlic in fact does have medicinal value – it has antiseptic properties.
France produces 18,500 tons of garlic every year, with several varieties being awarded a label of recognition of the region, growing and preparation standards. The average French person will consume 0.6kg (1.5 pounds) of garlic per annum (that’s per capita!).
The French word for garlic is “ail” and there are two major types of garlic in France—spring or autumn planted species. Both types are harvested in July and sewn into braids and will generally last for several months – until spring for some varieties (longer if treated).
Garlic from the north of France
One of the most well-known specialist types of garlic is l’ail fumé d’Arleux with its sweet, smoky scent that is unmistakable. It is produced in Arleux, Nord-Pas de Calais and accounts for almost 10% of the entire garlic production of France. Smoking the garlic preserves it (important in the damper climes of northern France), and also gives it a sweeter taste. The cloves are smoked in a mixture of peat and sawdust which turns the outer skins a deep golden brown, which are slightly sticky. Arleux is proud of its garlic and each year on the last weekend in August, the town hosts a festival at which you can try the different garlic products including the popular garlic soup. A garlic braiding competition is held, Queen of the Garlic is elected, there is a flea market, parade, local giants attend and the whole town goes garlic mad!
Garlic from the South of France
There are several well-known types from the south, these are just two of our favourites!
l’ail Violette de Cadours is from the Midi-Pyrénées. As its name suggests, this garlic is characterised by its purple colour; cultivated on the hillsides, hung in barns and sheds and braided by hand – this is beautiful looking garlic with a great taste.
L’ail Rose de Lautrec is also from the Midi-Pyrénées. Legend has it that the pink garlic of Lautrec appeared in the middle Ages. A travelling salesman from far away stopped at a place called the Oustallarié Lautrec to eat. Having little money, he embellished his meal with pretty pink cloves he had bought with his and left some behind. The hostel staff planted them and the pink garlic of Lautrec was born.
Egyptian slaves were given a daily ration of garlic, as it was believed to ward off illness and to increase strength and endurance which they certainly needed with all those pyramids to build.
When King Tutankhamun’s tomb was excavated, bulbs of garlic were said to be discovered, scattered throughout the rooms.
The Bible states that when Moses led the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt (around 1,200BC), they complained of missing the finer things in life – including garlic.
In some circles, garlic is held in high regard as an aphrodisiac (did you know that onions were also once believed to be an aphrodisiac in France?).
It was customary for Greek midwives to hang garlic cloves in birthing rooms to keep evil spirits away.
In Homer’s Odyssey, he says that Odysseus (Ulysses) escaped from the witch-goddess Circe by eating “yellow garlic”.
The Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans used garlic for healing purposes. In fact there is a long history of using garlic to get rid of insects, from slugs to mosquitos and garlic has a reputation for protecting people from mosquito bites.