If anyone had told me 10 years ago that I might one day get as excited about garlic as about chocolate, I would have - well - eaten a garlic bulb whole! My garlic-in-London experience had mostly, up to then, been supermarket staple white nylon sacks packed with three or four garlic bulbs, one at least of which always ended up growing mould in the darkest corner of the fridge.
But here I am, jittery as a little kid in a room of new toys, just because of two new-to-me garlic bulbs I've just discovered. Oh how I love the never-ending discoveries of regional variations of Italy's fabulous seasonal fruit and veg.
My 'garlic dawning' has been a bit slow. Before coming to live in Tuscany, garlic had always been for me, well frankly, garlic. Something I wouldn't be without, but that was as far as my culinary thinking went on the subject. How wrong I was, and I'm so mad that it's taken me so long to realize the gastronomic nuances, or even the existence, of different varieties of garlic.
I blame this on my Florentine husband who has always grown our own garlic: tiny, fantastically fiddly to peel, but so worth the effort in terms of flavour. In the middle of the winter one year when we had used up all our own garlic plaits, we had to buy from the greengrocer. I'd never seen such huge bulbs. Sitting down to the supper I had prepared that night using one of these bulbs, my husband immediately noticed an unfamiliar and unpleasant taste. So un-garlic-like that we didn't even eat the meal I had lovingly prepared. This 'made not grown' probably somewhere in China variety, is barred from our kitchen.
After this experience I have always steered away from 'botox' bulbs and become gradually more aware of, and better informed, of the many varieties of regional garlic and consequently, the different intensity of flavours which can be used to great effect in the preparation of dishes. It stands to reason that garlic with its roots in the rich volcanic soil of Bolsena, would taste different to one imbibing its nutrients from the calcium rich soil of the Dolomites. Right? Olives and grapes reflect their terroires, so why wouldn't garlic. No less than nine different varieties of garlic are offically recognized in Italy - two of which are actually Slowfood acknowleged - but I know from friends here - that many people have their own version which has been handed down and kept going, through generations of family veggie plots.
The other day I was standing amongst the shoulder high zucchini plants of our organic gardening friend's enviable vegetable plot, when I spied uprooted garlic lying out in the sun to dry. Apart from the different sizes, they all looked much the same lying there throwing off their parchment jackets in the blazing heat. How wrong: Raffaello's drop-dead gorgeous agronomist brother, patiently put me right, introducing me to Rosso Nubia Paceco (Slowfood) and to Resia, and Vessalaico (Slowfood). With his dawn-plucked-peach complexion, pea-green eyes and Renaissance waves, he could, frankly, have been introducing me to lumps of coal, and I would have been just as attentive. The moment reminded me of the experience years before when my two elderly sister aunts in Dorset walked me around their old-English rectory garden presenting me personally by name to every single one of their 200 roses. It was my initiation into the world of roses. Well, that was England. Very few Italians would get on such first-name terms with roses, but it can happen, apparently, with garlic.
Already my hands were itching to get home and take a closer look and taste. When I came to peel off the delicate skins, I literally squeaked with delight and called in my husband to take a look. Inside there were the most beautiful ruby red shiny tightly packed cloves that I had ever seen. I began carefully peeling two, three, four, five bulbs, just to check that it wasn't a fluke of nature. They were so beautiful that I set them as a centre piece on our farmhouse table (that mad English women again).
Not to distance husband and friends, tasting has had to be a little more controlled. We have however, never eaten so many bruschetta - slices of our home-made sourdough bread toasted, rubbed with a garlic clove which melts its oils into the hot toast, and then sprinkled with Sicilian sea salt and smeered with our local olive oil. Actually we ended up trying out variations of olive oils from other regions mixing with the various garlics. Fabulous is all I can say. And a great eye-opener, or tastebud teaser.
The discovery has come just at the right time as I have been making winter-survival quantities of pesto with the first harvest of basil leaves from the garden. How perfectly did nature get the timing of fresh basil and fresh garlic. Thank goodness someone thought of combining them into pesto.
Our house has been tantalizingly pungent with garlic and basil for quite a few days now. A risotto I make quite often throughout the year, has taken on new meaning and my husband has begged for respite as I have been trying out the same recipe with different types of garlic: my roasted garlic risotto.
RISOTTO WITH ROASTED GARLIC AND ROSEMARY
Risotto con aglio arrosto e ramerino
6 - 8 cloves of garlic
A bunch of rosemary
1 small red onion
500g risotto rice
A good slosh of white wine or prosecco
1.5 litres of good meat or chicken broth
Peel the garlic and put whole in a small bowl with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, salt and freshly ground pepper. Mix. Form a small aluminium packet into which to pop the garlic and oil and seal it well leaving a little air inside (in other words, not squashing and squeezing the alunimium). Pop this inito the oven at about 150° fpr approx 20 minutes. Remove the packet from the oven and open carefully to check if the garlic has softened. If not continue to cook until soft, taking care not to let them burn.
Pinch the leaves off the twigs of rosemary and chop very finely. For a pronounced rosemary flavour use about 1 tablespoon of chopped garlic.
Chop the small red onion finely.
In a pan pour enough olive oil to just coat the bottom and soften the onion in this. Add the chopped rosemary just before the onion is ready to allow it diffuse its oils.
Add the rice and move it around until all the grains are coated in olive oil and almost sticking to the bottom of the pan. Have the broth ready and piping hot in another pan next to the risotto pan.
First add a slosh of white wine. When it has been absorbed, add the broth a ladle at a time taking care to stir the rice every now and then but not continuously. Season with salt and pepper. Continue until cooked then take the pan off the heat and stir in a knon of butter about the size of a walnut.
I like to serve this risotto with grated mature goats cheese, but pecorino or parmigiano are also great.