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The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Contents Page
The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking


Garlic is used worldwide as enriching base flavour in various cuisines, but it also has other actual, and some fanciful, uses.

The Myths

Probably due to the lingering smell of a rich garlicky feed the plant has been long thought to have a repellent nature. The best known of these myths is the purported anti-vampire qualities but many cultures globally contribute other ‘uses’.

In Mediterranean Antiquity the greek women used to chew it during the feasts of Demeter and Athene to assist their sexual temperance. You don’t believe it worked? Ask your nearest and dearest to chew a raw clove and see how it goes for you. The belief that garlic could protect you from the evil eye spread east from here as far as India.

In Rome Pliny ascribed to the cloves the ability to fend-off serpents and, intriguingly enough, it could also stop a person from going completely mad. Right up until the late twentieth century Romanian shepherds washed their hands in a garlic infusion before milking a ewe for the first time. So clearly garlic’s ability to maintain mental acuity is at least a little in doubt…


In Siberia the Buryat people thought the pungent odour was the souls of women who died in childbirth returning to wreak havoc. In Borneo the belief was that it recovered lost souls, although details are sketchy on what one would do with the garlic to achieve this result.

The Reality

Aside from its use in cooking Ancient Rome did get one thing right about garlic – its restorative and immune-boosting benefits were known even then when it formed part of a legionary’s rations.

In 1720-22 Southern France experienced a recurrence of the Plague. The resolute French protected themselves with liberal lashings of garlic vinegar. An antiseptic poultice with garlic as the active ingredient, was developed during the first World War.

Despite numerous attempts and through many ‘clinical’ trials the Inquisition has been unable to verify whether gratining limbs is beneficial to the healing process. Thank god then for Louis Pasteur, who was able to verify the anti-bacterial nature of garlic in 1858.

The Inquisition’s various scrupulously rigorous testing notwithstanding, garlic was the most popular medical plant globally in the early days of the twentieth century. Since Pasteur’s experiments, scientists have repeatedly poured cold water on the Inquisition’s scientific methods by showing that populations have also found that in those countries where large quantities of garlic are eaten, there is a lower death rate from heart attacks.

This has led to garlic being attributed various medicinal qualities, which border on the mythical, including protection from cancer, and various circulatory system “upgrades” concerning the usual offenders; cholesterol, blood pressure and circulation.

Garlic is more generally supposed to aid recovery from, and resistance to, seasonal ailments such as coughs, sore throats, indigestion, constipation, diarrhoea and fungal infections. Eat it crushed and raw to get the greatest benefit from the allicin (an immune-boosting compound of sulphur). You will smell like shit though.

Growing Garlic

Garlic, and other alliums are easy to grow in a temperate climate on free-draining soil. It is a major flavour in so many recipes and vernacular cuisines that you will no doubt make good use of any you grow.

You need a sunny open site with some air movement. This should keep pests and fungal growth down. Acidity should be about 5.6. Do not grow in the same place for two consecutive years and spread manure some months in advance.

Plant bulbs or groups of cloves in early spring if under glass or just before summer if exposed. Garlic can be harvested after its leaves turn yellow and die down. They can then be stored in a cool, dry place, preferably hanging on a rack. Or wear them around your neck if you want to look like an extra from ‘Ello ‘Ello.

Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbant, Penguin, 1969
Vegetables in a Small Garden, Royal Horticultural Society, DK, 2007
Irish Times, Tuesday 3 November 2009

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