The rasping cough caught at the back of my throat, jolting me awake. My nose dripped on the pillow, my eyes bleary. As I slowly dragged my body to the edge of the bed, it was clear that I wasn’t making it to work.
We are deep inside cold season here in Canberra. There has been a parade of empty chairs in my team at work, with everyone seemingly getting sick. It’s been getting ridiculous.
Once I woke up (sometime past midday) I decided that this has to stop. I needed to find something that would smack down this cold before it got any worse. And for that, there was only one option.
More specifically, roast garlic, cooked as a whole bulb, squeezed out while still hot, the beautiful brown sludge searing my fingers. This is spread on bread, thick enough to hold back the whole clan of Cullens, and sprinkled with a touch of salt and a few drops of lemon.
It’s a glorious remedy.
Not that I’m the first to try it. This holy bulb has been eaten since the Pyramids of Giza were just someone dreaming of big triangles. Through 6000 years of history garlic has been used to treat all manner of ills, from heatstroke to smallpox.
And even more amazingly, some of it might actually have a scientific basis!
Even if it didn’t, though, garlic is still exciting. Even if there were nothing even slightly beneficial to your health about it, I and the rest of the world wouldn’t stop eating it.
I’m not sure if I’ve always been such a garlic fiend. I remember being a fan of garlic bread, but that was probably as much about hot melted butter as anything else.
But then, at 16, there was a trip to France, and a soup that changed everything.
On the outskirts of a tiny walled village in the Dordogne called Monpazier was a hotel, with the only real restaurant in town, a simple little bistro in a beautiful 19th century building. Lunch was a fixed price menu, and pretty classic in style.
For the entrée, a huge tureen is placed on the table, beside bowls of croutons, grated Gruyère, and fresh garlic cloves. Out of this tureen wafted that sweet, heady scent, hitting you straight in the back of the sinuses. It may have just been garlic soup, but it was one of the most memorable dishes of my life.
It’s hard to say what made it stay in my head for so long. Some of it is to do with the interactivity of the dish, having to rub some raw garlic onto croutons, put them in bowl then heap cheese on top before ladling the soup over it all.
There was the mix of textures, with the silken liquid, stringy melted mess of cheese, and crunch from the bread. But more than anything there was the way the heat of the fresh garlic cut through the richness from the soup in a simple marriage that just made sense. It managed to be both exciting and comforting at the same time.
For years I have tried to recreate this soup. I’ve searched recipes, tried a number of techniques, but I’ve never been able to latch on to quite that magic. Don’t get me wrong, my own garlic soup is a damn fine attempt. I make it all dense and powerful, flecked with the golden caramelised bits from when the bulb is roasted. But there was a silkiness I’ve never replicated, an intensity not reached. My memory has never quite been matched.
Since that fateful soup, garlic has grown even further in my estimations and has become one of my absolute favourites. It works as a star player, such as mixed through spaghetti with chilli and oil, or as just one of many bit players making the base of a great Thai curry. I love it raw, as in the brash heat of skordilla, and adore it roasted like with my sick-day toast.
I don’t know if that thick spread of pungent glory helped with my cold at all that day. The research out there is all pretty inconclusive. Not to mention, I didn’t actually get better. But I don’t care. It gave me that one more reason to throw an allium in the oven.
It’s almost worth getting sick.