You are what you eat

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Dear Kitchen Agony,

Given Brexit’s wholesale rejection of European values, will we now have to give up garlic?

As the most successful foreign cultural infiltrator to Britain in the past 40 years, garlic should be a prime candidate for the Brexit bonfire, along with all the other European ideals, freedoms and pleasures that we suddenly seem eager to sacrifice.

We flourished without garlic for hundreds of years, but now it’s in every food shop and restaurant, stealing the jobs of traditional British vegetables. Surely it’s the patriotic duty of every Little Englander to immediately forego chicken tikka. Why wasn’t that in your manifesto, Nigel Farage?

Because he would never dare to try it on. And the reason is that we love garlic so much we have forgotten that it isn’t one of ours. It has not only taken us over, it has owned us like a hot Latin lover.

Forty years ago we British were garlic virgins, preserving our chastity behind a wall of boiled beef and carrot. If you caught a whiff of garlic’s sulphuric compounds at all in England’s green and pleasant land, you knew you were in the presence of Johnny Foreigner, or possibly a spy. Garlic was a taste idea that made people shudder, an alien poison. Even Italian restaurants left it out of dishes for fear of offence. In the Seventies the pesto recipe at Gennaro’s of Dean Street daringly included a single garlic clove to every half pint, much of the rest made up by a quarter of a pound of lard. Pine nuts and Parmesan didn’t make the cut either.

You can’t resist an irresistible taste forever, and capitulation began when garlic started to arrive in force with the boom in Indian, Chinese and pizza restaurants. Even then we were coy about it. People used to apologise for ‘garlic breath’—supposedly worse than the smell of garlic itself—and hold their hands in front of their mouths, disingenuously affecting to protect the sensitivities of those around them, while simultaneously advertising their cosmopolitan trendiness.

The first time I ever experienced garlic breath (or GB as, ironically, it was known) was on the breath of a girl who was beautiful, and was kissing me, so I never thought of it as anything other than a divine aphrodisiac.

We now eat more garlic than ever before—more even than the French, apparently. We grow it ourselves in the Isle of Wight and other exotic parts of England that boast continental sunshine. The Garlic Information Centre has its headquarters in Battle, Hastings, coincidentally the scene of another famous English capitulation. Curiously nobody talks about garlic breath any more; or ever notices it, so far as I am aware. That’s because we no longer think of it as so foreign that Listerine is preferable. Outwardly 51.9 per cent of us may be resisting foreign influence, but garlic has conquered all of us from within.


Recipe: Spaghetti Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino (Spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and chilli)

There is a lot to be said about the cooking of garlic, which takes on dramatically different characters depending how you treat it. This is one of the most vibrant of those characters, as a primary flavour of a dish. The garlic taste you want here is full of attention-grabbing verve, an atmospheric scene-setter. It’s the flavour you can smell as you enter a good pizza restaurant where they are throwing chopped garlic into hot olive oil. The secret is not to cook the garlic too much initially.

Serves 2


200g spaghetti

Extra virgin olive oil

4 fat cloves of garlic (more if they’re tiny) finely chopped

1 tsp dried chilli

1 handful finely chopped parsley (either the superior French kind or the not-so-good English curly stuff, depending on your affiliation)

Salt and pepper


Put the spaghetti on to boil in a large saucepan with a tbsp or two of salt

Warm the olive oil in a pan large enough to hold the spaghetti too on a low to medium heat and throw in the garlic. Let it warm gently in the oil. Most recipes say cook until it goes golden, but be careful because at that point it is on the verge of being overcooked and will become bitter. If this happens start again with fresh garlic — it’s important to get this bit right. It doesn’t need to be golden and 30 seconds is usually enough — you will smell that pizza restaurant smell when it is ready. Take it off the heat and throw in a dash of cooling oil rather than overcook it if you see the edges darkening

Drain the spaghetti when it’s still patently al dente and reserve some of the cooking water. Throw the chilli in with the garlic, quickly turn up the heat and add the drained spaghetti and a little of the water. Keep stirring, adding the parsley, until the liquids thicken slightly and everything has taken on a unity of purpose

Serve sprinkled with Parmesan and enjoy a little bit of Europe


Martin Plimmer

Please send any kitchen queries/agonies to Martin Plimmer at