It seems to me rather odd that in America, Italian food is defined largely by oregano (infrequently used in Italian cuisine) and by prodigious use of garlic (appearing far more subtly in modern Italian cuisine).
It’s likely that Italian immigrants, finding foodstuffs cheap and abundant in America, overdid these things, giving Americans a distorted view of the cuisine. For the stay-at-home Italians, garlic provided a cover for foods on the verge of rotting, foods that the poor couldn’t afford to throw away.
By the Italian economic miracle of the early 1980s, Italian Cuisine rose with the tide, and the need for strong flavors to mask bad food diminished. Garlic cloves are often used with the skin on, as you might throw a few cloves into the roasting potatoes to “perfume” them. Otherwise, garlic might be cooked in oil and removed, lending just a bit of flavor to the cooking oil.
Are there Garlicky foods in Italy? What comes to mind first is Spaghetti Aglio Olio, spaghetti seasoned with garlic and oil. But that dish, despite the quantity of garlic, is mildly flavored. Some cooks even take a clove or two of garlic, burn them in the oil, and remove them for an even more subtle dish.
For a dish with more garlic flavor, Pici all’Aglione, widely available in Tuscany, features an eggless pasta and abundant garlic in a tomato sauce.
Health Properties of Italian Garlic
With the movement to define “DOP” goods, garlic was examined for not only its flavor but for its healthy properties. Garlic is antibacterial. It’s good for your heart, and it’s even been known to fight cancer. Sourdough bakers find the addition of raw garlic will kill all that is sourdough about their bread; roasted garlic is fine, however.
The health benefits of garlic come from something called Allicin.
Allicin is a compound that may help ease inflammation and block free radicals that harm cells and tissues in your body. The compound is one of the main active components of garlic and what gives it its distinct taste and scent. — What Is Allicin?
A Tourist Discovers High-Allicin Garlic in Modena
While on a culinary adventure, courtesy of Italian Culinary Adventures, we discovered the Albinelli covered market in Modena. We needed garlic at home, so we looked in every stall until we found some. The vendor pulled out what he called “the best”. It was this one, Aglio Rosso di Nubia:
This Sicilian red garlic has the highest level of Allicin of all the garlic types in Italy. You’ll notice that the outer papery layer of the bulbs is nearly white, but the skin of the cloves is a deeper reddish pink. It’s grown in northwest Sicily, largely around Paceco in a small village called Nùbia. It’s harvested at night, because the humidity and coolness facilitates braiding them, as in the picture.
The health benefits come mostly from fresh garlic, so we found it ideal in pasta with tuna. We mashed the garlic using a wooden pestle and our local marble mortar, then added some good olive oil and a can of Italian tuna and some capers. Add some lemon zest if you have a lemon. When the pasta of your choice is done, add the raw sauce to the pasta, stir a little and serve.
Of course, Italy has some other notable garlic varieties as well. The red garlic of Sulmona is also healthy, but this time the protagonist is Allistatin. If you go to Sulmona in the Abruzzo, you’ll find zolle.
You see, in early May, about a month before it is harvested, the red garlic of Sulmona sends out a shoot that would become a flower that would begin to divert the flow of nourishment from the bulb. You don’t want that, so you go out early in the morning when it’s still a bit damp and pinch off that shoot. And you
throw it awaysave it, take it home, wash it and boil it in some vinegar to preserve it, and then add some olive oil until you have a supply of zolle, a condiment you can add to your salad to kick it up a notch. Why throw anything edible away these days?
Perhaps about now you have gotten your fill of garlic. Fair enough. How about learning of the (real) pesto?