Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Legendary Food

I’ve just returned from my neighborhood market with two first-of-the-season finds, both aromatic, but very different beings.
First, I bought fresh garlic, which is available for a few short weeks early in the spring. At this point, the bulbs and cloves are fully formed, but the papery covering of each clove has not yet developed. And is it pungent! I took it immediately to the balcony, where it will stay until I use it up because it overpowers the interior of my apartment otherwise.
Italian folklore says that you should eat this delicacy raw in the spring to cleanse your blood from winter impurities, that it will lower cholesterol, and that it will reduce hypertension. But let me warn you, if you subscribe to this practice, you can only associate with like-minded individuals for a while. I tried it a few years back. The cloves were both hot and sweet, but the aroma lingered on my breath for a very long time.
Other folktales about garlic abound, both about the fresh and regular varieties. The ancient Greeks and Romans fed it to athletes and soldiers because they believed it developed strength and aggressiveness.  And midwives put it in birthing rooms to protect the newborns from sorcery and illness.
In the Middle Ages, garlic developed a reputation as a protector against the Evil Eye and vampires. It was also believed to be a strong deterrent against “illnesses provoked by malignant spirits” which my Italian book of herbs defines as “mental disturbances.” I wonder if psychiatrists know about that.
Garlic was also believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac, and in World War I, before the discovery of penicillin, it was used as a disinfectant.
My second purchase was Genovese Basil. Large-leafed basil has been available for a couple of weeks, but I held out for the variety from Genoa, home of pesto. This variety has fairly small leaves and is the most flavorful, although it won’t have a full flavor until it has a few more hours of sunlight a day than it gets now.
My herbal book recounts both sacred and profane legends associated with basil. In one, basil is said to have grown up from the vase in which Salome buried the head of John the Baptist. The other holds that Elena, mother of Emperor Constantine (who brought Christianity to the ancient Romans), gathered seeds from the site of the crucifixion of Christ and disbursed the plant throughout the world.
On the profane side, a 13th century song immortalized one Isabella of Messina. She preserved the head of her lover, decapitated by her brothers, in a jar of basil. Even more profane is the legend that a pot of basil on the balcony of a young girl indicated that she was ready to receive a lover.
I hadn’t read about this legend when I visited Genoa a couple of years ago. I saw pots of this small-leafed basil on doorsteps throughout the city. I assumed that meant the people of Genoa loved their basil. But maybe there was more to it.
I’m putting the pot of basil on my balcony along with the garlic, but don’t worry. I’m not a young girl.
TAGS: Garlic, basil, legends, culinary legends, Patricia Winton, herbs


Heidi Noroozy said...

We've had fresh garlic here in California for a few weeks, too. I used it to make the traditional Persian New Year's meal (herbed rice with fish). I can't wait for the basil to appear, though, so I can make pesto. Homemade is so much better than store bought.

Patricia Winton said...

Homemade pesto is better. But I must admit that I often buy it here. The cheese shops sell it in bulk from big tubs.

Supriya Savkoor said...

I love your yummy food stories, Patricia. But are you saying fresh garlic is only available in Rome in the spring? That seems cruel.

Ellis Vidler said...

I don't think I've ever seen fresh garlic. Maybe they have it at the Farmer's Market where it's outside. I'll have to look for it. The groceries may not want something that strong in the store, especially in bulk. When I read your food posts, I always want to cook something good.

Patricia Winton said...

Ellis, I don't think I ever saw fresh garlic in the US. I did put garlic that was beginning to sprout in a pot and used the green shoots for flavoring. That's very good. Supriya, things are very seasonal here. There's a season for everything!
Glad you both like my food stories. I'm thinking about collecting some of my old newspaper columns into an ebook.