Garlic soup that invades your soul and takes up residence in your clothes, 60 bulbs in a pot of soup makes for an exciting introduction to this French favourite…
I once went on a driving holiday with a friend in France – we decided to go to Nontron in the Dordogne region for a rugby match. The town had and maybe still does, a rather good team; they’d visited my local team in London and we were returning the favour. We drove down the coast of France via Normandy, through Bordeaux and then made our way back up to the centre via Nontron. The weather was glorious the whole way, blue skies, hot sun, warm sea water, gorgeous beaches, countryside scents as flowers blossomed in the summer heat. We stayed in cheap and rustic B&Bs and pitched our tent when there was nothing available in our budget.
Arriving in Nontron we met with our rugby playing friend in the local bar and were immediately welcomed into the community as if we were long lost relatives. Hugs and kisses all round. We were invited to dine at several homes but our rugby playing friend advised he had prepared a special dish in our honour – garlic soup (soupe à l’ail). There was a hush when he said this, an air of expectancy filled the room of the little auberge where we were all squeezed in. An old man about to put a slice of saucisson in his mouth, taken from a saucer on the bar stopped in mid-air. Everyone turned to look at us.
My friend said of course, we would love to have some soup (especially as this lovely man and his wife were putting us up for the night). Our host invited everyone else to join but suddenly they all remembered they had something else to do that night. It had been a long day of driving in the heat and we were looking forward to a nice meal and a good night’s sleep.
We wandered down to our host’s house, a medieval timbered building with small windows. He pushed open the door and a wall of pungent garlic mist rushed out and smacked us full in the face. I gulped and looked at my friend, I felt myself go pale. We entered a very small hall and were invited to sit and enjoy a glass of cider while our host “added the finishing touches” to the soup. I like garlic but this was like stepping inside a bulb of the smelliest garlic that ever existed. The garlic mist wafted around, it entered our noses and took up residence in our clothes. We could taste the soup without even seeing it.
I was dreading the moment when our host would enter the room with the powerfully reeking broth – but there was no way to escape without causing offence. In he came bearing a huge pot with a lid on. His wife put bowls and spoons on the table. It felt like gun fight at the OK Corral, everything was in slow motion and exaggerated and there was no way out. With a flourish our host removed the lid of the cauldron – the acidic vapour made its way out and into the room ghost-buster style. He spooned great ladles of the pongy liquid into our bowls, brushing aside my protestations that I really wasn’t that hungry.
The moment came… I couldn’t put if off any more, I spooned some of the yellow fluid which had whole garlic cloves, bits of garlic cloves and stringy bits of garlic in it, into my mouth. The first one was a shock of taste – overwhelming and ever so slightly bitter. Several mouthfuls later, I had adjusted and although I can’t say I enjoyed it, I got through it. I’ve had garlic soup several times since then but it’s never been anywhere near as punchy.
The next day was the rugby match, the whole village seemed to turn out and afterwards there was a barbecue. We were made to feel like visiting royalty who were long lost favourite cousins – everyone wanted to hug and kiss, shake our hands and make us really welcome. But, I did hear one lady say to her partner – “those English are really nice but Sacré Bleu – you could light a fire with their breath”…
Maurice Edmond Sailland (1872-1956), better known by his pen-name Curnonsky, a prolific food writer (including Michelin) said “A garlic caress is stimulating. A garlic excess soporific.”
I wonder what he would have thought of the 60 garlic clove soup!
More history and facts about French garlic… and the perfect garlic soup recipe!