A rose by another name

I've noticed, while working my plot, that not many vampires blow in for a chat. Some not-so-distant insectival relations do, certainly, on these dusky summer evenings, little nasties like gnats and midges. But most of my visitors are pretty harmless. I mean, Neil stopping by for another long conversation - looming over the gate to sink his fangs into his latest (delightfully nutty) theory of global conspiracy - is still basically a nonthreatening species.

Robin's black eyebrows might, I suppose, seem a touch menacing - but no, that's absurd. The rest of the face is permanently cheery. The voice always says (as the merry eyes survey my plot): "It's looking really good!" In truth, these excellent eyebrows are closer to Groucho Marx than Bram Stoker.

No vampires. Nor, to my knowledge, do they appear on any of the other 69 plots. The reason is perfectly clear (at least to the folkloristic).

Garlic.

I was surprised when I first joined this fenced-in community of idiosyncratic vegetable enthusiasts that so many grew garlic. For centuries, we British considered this powerful member of the onion tribe anathema. Even worse: foreign anathema.

Even today, I had thought, it was a middle-class taste. But I'd say most of the plotters are proudly working class. They would, I imagined, have thought garlic snobbish.

Not at all. Jeannie grows garlic. Joe Gallagher grows garlic. Monty grows garlic. So does Neil. I'm not sure who doesn't grow garlic. Almost the first thing I was asked, in the November I took on my plot, was: "Have you got your garlic in? Now's the best time."

I wondered if perhaps garlic was a Scottish tradition and distaste for it was a specifically English thing. I mean, my thoroughly English parents wouldn't have gone within 100 yards of a clove of garlic - not downwind, anyway.

A standby English gardening book of the 1950s to '70s - "The Complete Gardener," by W.E. Shewell-Cooper - sums up the attitude. All it says about "the stinking rose" (to use one of garlic's flattering pet names) is: "Not much grown in this country but useful in flavourings." Even briefer growing instructions follow this insular dismissive.

But the Scots have ancient links with France (the "Auld Alliance"), and the French are famously pro-garlic. Alexandre Dumas wrote of the "refined essence of this mystically attractive bulb."

However, the earliest known Scottish gardening book (1683) mentions onions and shallots, but no garlic.

Likewise, F. Marian McNeill's "The Scots Kitchen" (1928), with its load of "old time recipes," seems bereft of the smallest crushing of the stuff. It isn't even an ingredient in haggis or "rumbledethumps" (whatever they might be).

Today, British gardening books and cookbooks feel obliged to mention garlic, even if it is only a grudging lip-service to a regrettable trend. Anna Pavord's 1996 "The New Kitchen Garden," for instance, laconically lumps it in with shallots.

IT is to an American gardening book I must turn to discover anything like relish for growing, and cooking with, garlic in our times. Eleanour Pernyi, in "Green Thoughts" (compiled in 1981) makes it sound appealing and rewarding, as well as easy to grow. She says: "Garden garlic is mild and sweet, totally different from the commercial product." She adds that "in no case should it be aged or stale; and that is why I find it worthwhile to grow."

Yet the only recommendation the very English Ms. Pavord can manage, even today, is: "A single whiff is considered enough to see off ... the most bloodthirsty vampire."

She's right, of course. But garlic has other virtues, too.

*A weekly series about a municipal garden in Glasgow, Scotland.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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