Highly valued throughout the ages as a culinary spice, garlic is one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world. It is a hardy perennial belonging to the liliaceae family. Other members of this family include leeks, chives, spring onions and shallots, all distinguished by their pungent aroma and flavour.
Its usage predates written history; Sanskrit records document the use of garlic remedies approximately 5000 years ago. Legend suggests that Egyptian pharaohs prized garlic very highly and slaves building the pyramids were given a daily ration to keep them fit and strong. Throughout history, garlic has been regarded as a well-trusted remedy: during epidemics such as cholera and tuberculosis and in World War 1 where it was used as an antiseptic applied to wounds to cleanse and heal and to treat dysentery caused by the poor sanitary conditions in the trenches.
Throughout time, superstition has credited garlic with the ability to avert disease and evil spirits. Stories, verse and folklore claim garlic has the ability to ward off vampires. If worn around the neck or placed at the window, the plant’s pungent flowers are believed to provide protection and keep vampires from entering.
Nutritional highlights: The garlic bulb is the most commonly used portion of the plant, composed of 8-20 individual, teardrop shaped cloves enclosed in a white parchment-like skin. It is an excellent source of vitamin B6 (pyridoxine). It is also a very good source of manganese, selenium and vitamin C. In addition, garlic is a good source of other minerals, including phosphorous, calcium, potassium, iron and copper.
Research: Modern research has focused on garlic’s potential to reduce the risk of heart disease, cholesterol levels and cancer. Several studies suggest that garlic makes platelets (the cells involved in blood clotting) less likely to clump together and stick to artery walls, therefore acting as an anticoagulant and so reducing the risk of heart attacks. The sulphurous compounds have also been studied for their ability to inhibit cancerous cells and block tumours by slowing DNA replication. The ability of these compounds to depress tumour cell proliferation is still being studied extensively.
Garlic may also lower blood pressure slightly, mainly through its ability to widen blood vessels. Garlic has a long history of use as an infection fighter – against viruses, bacteria and fungi. It has been referred to as ‘Russian penicillin’ to denote its antibacterial properties. Some skin conditions such as warts and insect bites may respond to garlic oil, or a crushed raw garlic clove.
How to select and store: For the best flavour and maximum health benefits, buy fresh garlic. Do not buy garlic that is soft, shows evidence of decay or is beginning to sprout. Garlic in flake, powder or paste form is convenient, but it is not as good as fresh garlic. It is best stored at room temperature in an uncovered container in a cool, dark place away from exposure to heat and sunlight. Storing it in this manner will help prevent sprouting. Depending on its age and variety, a whole garlic bulb will keep fresh from 2 weeks to 2 months.