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Intimate look at all things garlic a treat to read

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Garlic, that odiferous bulb once scorned for its association with the unsophisticated peasant, is these days noted not only for its taste and medicinal properties, but also its presence in art and literature through the ages and even its role in geopolitics.

Garlic lovers can pursue anything and everything about garlic in the pages of Liz Primeau's latest book, an enjoyable harvest from the prolific Mississauga-based gardening expert.

The founding editor of Canadian Gardening magazine and former host of HGTV's Canadian Gardening Television, Primeau has penned several books, including the bestselling Front Yard Gardens: Growing More Than Grass.

Primeau writes In Pursuit of Garlic in a conversational style that is a treat to read. The history of garlic, she argues, parallels the history of civilizations.

North American culture eschewed its taste and aroma during much of the 20th century, especially when antibiotics and wonder drugs made us dismiss as old wives' tales stories that Roman legions drew their physical strength from daily doses of garlic and that the Chinese used garlic effectively as a poultice for infections and other ailments.

But science has caught up to common knowledge. Primeau explains the nutritional and scientific properties of garlic clearly. We now know that garlic contains antibacterial sulfur compounds.

The most potent of these is allicin, a compound only created when garlic is cut and the interior of the clove is exposed to oxygen.

That's why raw garlic is thought to provide the most health benefits. But since it's mostly used as flavouring in cooking, Primeau advises sautéing only until "faintly tan and fragrant."

The plant develops underground during cold winters and produces its flowering stalk (called a scape) and white bulbs in the late spring. There are two types of garlic, hardneck and softneck. The latter is easier to plant and grow mechanically and keeps longer in storage, making it the choice of large-scale commercial operations in North America today.

According to Primeau, garlic's renaissance is attributable to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when hundreds of varieties previously unknown outside the former Soviet bloc became available to scientists, gardeners and cooks.

Garlic now comes in shades and stripes, purple, pink, red, brown and even black for gourmets who can afford its hefty price tag.

Primeau's honesty and wry humour will reassure the average cook and gardener; she admits that garlic powder was once a staple in her own kitchen, that her first efforts to grow her own garlic produced only a few tiny bulbs.

Instead of heading to the grocery story, she took a "no-expenses paid" research trip to find out as much as she could about garlic.

Her travels took her to a festival in France and to Gilroy, Calif., the self-proclaimed garlic capital of the world, where an annual three-day event attracts 100,000 visitors.

Amateur chefs vie for prizes with garlic-based dishes such as Warm Weather Watermelon Crabmeat-Kissed South Seas Soup and Potentially Pretentious Pork Tenderloin with Garlic Five Ways.

Primeau learned there that, just as in the manufacturing sector, the Chinese economic dragon nearly wiped out the North American garlic industry by dumping cheap garlic on the market.

The number of hectares planted in California dropped from 16,000 to 10,000 in the early 2000s. Canadian garlic farming, which was just beginning, was similarly hard hit.

Court cases, trade wars and garlic smuggling have now made this seemingly innocuous vegetable a matter of international conflict.

Primeau knows what readers really want -- gardening tips for the Canadian climate and recipes. Creamy garlic pie or roasted garlic and blueberry cobbler, anyone?

Lists of newsletters, festivals and stores selling unusual varieties conclude this flavourful and fulfilling account.

Harriet Zaidman is a serial garlic user and teacher-librarian in Winnipeg.

In Pursuit of Garlic

An Intimate Look at the Divinely Odorous Bulb

By Liz Primeau

Greystone, 202 pages, $20

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 17, 2012 J9

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