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The 40 cloves of garlic that changed everything

This is the time of year for locally grown garlic on Galiano. It's good to have firm, fresh, juicy garlic to work with - better than the hard stuff that comes from China.

This is the time of year for locally grown garlic on Galiano. It's good to have firm, fresh, juicy garlic to work with - better than the hard stuff that comes from China.

First, I break out the necessary numbers of cloves from the tightly packed head.

I place each clove one at a time on the cutting board, rest the flat side of the chef's knife on top of the clove, then smash down on it with whichever of my fists is ready to go.

This is good exercise, and it's also the best way I know to get at the garlic. At the same time the papery outer skin of the clove comes loose and the inside is crushed, making it easier to chop the garlic small.

And right now, with the fresh garlic, I also get a gush of sticky, fruity, garlic juice as the clove falls apart. What a wonderful mess!

How my mother would have hated it. Way back when I was growing up, I never saw raw garlic.

The "flavour" of garlic could be found on the pantry shelf, but in the form of garlic salt, which would be added sparingly to the salad dressing on special occasions. Guests would be warned - "I hope you don't mind, the recipe called for garlic salt in the dressing! But I only put in half of what they asked for."

Chris, my husband, said it wasn't quite so extreme for him. His family kept a clove of garlic in the larder, in a little Wedgwood pot. It was not actually used in cooking, but was carefully rubbed around the inside of the wooden salad bowl before the lettuce was put in place. Just a "touch" of garlic in the salad.

But now, all these years later, garlic is a large part of our food experience.

Many cities have garlic-themed restaurants, where in addition to garlicky appetizers and mains, you could enjoy garlic gelato and other desserts.

I've also heard of garlic wine, but you'll have to visit Gilroy, California, Garlic Capital of the World, to experience it. There, you'll find the Rapazzini Winery, home of the World Famous Chateau de Garlic Drinking Wine, in red and white versions.

I have recently learned a lot about garlic from Ron L. Engeland, via his book Growing Great Garlic.

Ron is a "small-scale farmer" working in north Washington state. Small as it is, the book is encyclope-dic in its scope. I understand now that there are two principal varieties of garlic: one has an exquisite flavour but is a challenge to grow profitably; the other has a so-so flavour but can be grown reliably in large quantities. Guess which one is usually in the stores?

Ron also dropped a surprising statistic. Fully two thirds of the garlic grown in California never comes close to the produce department. It is dried, ground up and sold in powder form. Possibly to make garlic salt - who knows? He also made a wise observation, based on long experience: "Garlic is not commonly referred to as a food, a spice, or a herb - it's just garlic."

I have a feeling that the Garlic Wall, the one that used to divide "No garlic, thank you" from "Yes, please, we love garlic," was knocked over by a dish that became wildly popular in the 60s - perhaps. I'm shaky on dates. You may remember it - Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic. People would repeat, in amazement, "Forty cloves of garlic? I can't believe you said that."

Then they'd ask you for the recipe, make it and love it. It's a casserole that cooks for hours, so the garlic loses its pungency and becomes sweet and buttery. But the important thing to my mind is that you had to prepare the garlic by hand - breaking up the bulb, separating the cloves, removing the skin.

That task, I believe, is a rite of passage: once it's done, you lose your fear of garlic forever.

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