GarlicThe Romans used it in cooking before the birth of Christ and garlic continues to be popular with home cooks and restaurant chefs alike – but what makes this humble bulb such a culinary star?

Garlic is a member of the onion family, although it has a stronger and more pungent flavor and smell than most onions. Garlic is easily cultivated by separating the cloves of a bulb and planting them separately in the ground. Each clove forms a new plant.

Garlic is a popular ingredient in Mediterranean cooking, and is an essential ingredient in many Italian, Greek and Spanish recipes, such as aioli, pesto and skordalia. Without garlic, salami would be just a meat roll, and with garlic and butter, a simple French loaf becomes a tasty accompaniment to pizza.

But garlic is also used in many other cuisines, such as Asian stir fry recipes. It is a universal agent for adding flavor and distinction to many foods. Garlic is easily added to a variety of savory dishes, even hamburgers. The cloves are peeled and finely chopped, or broken up using a mortar and pestle. The chopped garlic can be added to ground meat, stews, stir fries or baked dishes such as lasagna and cottage pie.

If you want the flavor of garlic but don’t want to find chunks of it in your food, simply cut a large garlic clove in half and rub it over the surface of your cooking pan, or roast whole unpeeled garlic bulbs with your meat and vegetables. The flavor will be infused through the food but the bulbs can be discarded.

The uses for garlic don’t stop at the kitchen. For centuries, the powerful antiseptic properties of garlic have been invaluable for medicinal use. In World War One, garlic juice was applied to soldiers’ wounds to help control infection, while taken internally it helped control dysentery. The frequent use of garlic is believed to be one of the major reasons Mediterranean people suffer less heart trouble than other nations in Europe and the west.

In fact, it’s quite common in Mediterranean countries for garlic to be eaten raw, or in a sandwich with crusty bread. You may not want to go this far, but adding garlic to your diet will give health benefits as well as a more savory flavor.

So if you find that dining out is becoming a more aromatic experience, with more garlic being adding to a wider range of dishes, just tuck in and enjoy – the chefs are not only making your food more flavorful, they are helping to protect your health.