February 3, 2013

Musings About Garlic, Spain and Italy


I’m in love with southern Spain. Especially when it’s cold and grey in Bologna and the winters here seem interminable. The weather there always seems sunny, even in winter. Because it’s been cold, grey and foggy in Bologna for the entire past week, I thought I’d prepare a Spanish dish to cheer up everyone at home. I decided to prepare the Spanish huevos rotos, a dish made with broken eggs over cooked potatoes, onions, green pepper and garlic.

So what does this have to do with garlic or Italy, you might ask? Well, the recipe called for 5 cloves of minced garlic for 4 servings worth of food! That is a lot of garlic by Italian standards. I was surprised it called for this much garlic as I am used to Italian recipes that call for 1 or 2 garlic cloves maximum. I also realized that my husband, from Parma (Emilia-Romagna), would surely twist his nose when he discovered there was garlic in the dish I was preparing, so I just put in 2 garlic cloves, hoping he would not get too upset.

As I tossed the potatoes and onions in the skillet, I thought about how little garlic there is in Italian cooking. In comparison, Spanish cuisine seems to have lots of garlic in all kinds of dishes (even in an egg dish!) So why does everyone think that Italians eat a lot of garlic, even on their bread, I wondered? By the way, I still have not seen any "garlic bread" in Italy, something that is commonly associated with Italian cuisine. The closest thing to "garlic bread" (baked bread with minced garlic) is the Tuscan bruschetta with garlic rubbed on toasted bread.

In the recipe for huevos rotos, the garlic is minced. But Italians usually put the garlic cloves in whole, cook it a bit in olive oil and pull it out often before adding any sauce or meat. This way you have the flavor (albeit very mild) without risking eating it by accident (!). Eating it, of course, would give one bad breath, and I like to joke that Italians like to be ready for any unexpected love encounter thanks to Cupid. The truth is much less romantic; many tell me they can’t digest garlic. For those of you wondering what it means not to digest garlic, it means indigestion with garlic taste.

Garlic is mostly seen in southern Italian cooking. There is none in traditional Northern Italian cooking...there is some in Tuscan cooking but little compared to Spanish cooking: in the Spaghetti, garlic and hot pepper dish they use 2 cloves of garlic for 4 servings! Continuing down the Italian continent we can see that there isn’t much garlic in Roman cooking either; classics such as the Amatriciana (actually from the Abruzzo region but made famous in Rome) and Cacio e Pepe sauces are traditionally garlic-free. Below Rome, in the regions of Campania, Abruzzo, Puglia, Basilicata, Molise, Calabria and Sicily, we see enough garlic to actually detect its taste in the various dishes.

Ever wonder why? Well, it dawned on me that the Spanish reigned in Southern Italy for over 500 years! So it could be that the taste for garlic that many attribute as typically Italian is really Spaniard. The Spaniards must have brought along their culinary traditions when they settled in Italy back in the 1200’s... now that makes more sense...

So why do Italians get all the credit for putting lots of garlic in their food, when they don’t really use as much as they are purported to? I suppose we can thank the Southern Italians who immigrated into different countries and brought their use of garlic with them. 

Out of curiosity, I did a quick search in the Internet for “pane all’aglio”, garlic bread, just to make sure there wasn’t some small town in the mountains whose specialty is garlic bread. The search came back with surprising results. Different sites attributed "garlic bread" as typically or traditionally American, Australian, English, Irish, South African or an all-encompassing Anglosaxon. One of the Italian sites cautions the reader about "garlic bread": "even though the name might sound scary; its perfectly digestible. Of course you will have garlic breath."

So it looks like the use of copious amounts of garlic in Italian cuisine is just legendary stuff... 

1 comment:

Vanessa said...

Great post - I had no idea!