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Object lesson No 7 Garlic

Love it or hate it, there's no mistaking its deliciously whiffy aroma. Garlic's nostril-filling and blood-thinning properties are both down to one thing: allicin, the main active ingredient released when a clove is cut or crushed. It wasn't isolated until 1944, but for centuries before that people knew there was something special about the onion's pungent cousin.

Allium sativum - the botanical name for garlic, which means spear leek, after its pointed shoots - originated in Siberia. Also known as the stinking lily, poor man's treacle and devil's posy, it was a part of the diet, medicine and folklore of many ancient civilisations. Hippocrates recommended it for skin complaints, Albert Schweitzer used it to treat cholera in Africa, and soldiers in the First World War dabbed it on their wounds to stop them turning septic. Slaves building the pyramids in Egypt were given a daily dose and Tutankhamun's tomb contained several bulbs of the smelly stuff to ward off evil spirits. Today Egypt is one of the world's largest producers of garlic, along with China, Thailand and Spain.

In the UK, one of the few places where garlic grws well is in the sunny climate of the Isle of Wight, where clove lovers gather for an annual festival after the harvest in August and to savour its malodorous flavour in ice cream and bubblegum.

Mediterranean and Indian cuisines are unimaginable without garlic, but it wasn't always so celebrated - Shakespeare called it the food of rustics and Mrs Beeton considered it offensive. Humans can develop a taste for garlic at an early age; babies whose mothers eat it while breastfeeding grow up to like it according to reasearch conducted at the University of Western Sydney in Austrlia, and some animals, especially racehorses, thrive on it. But it has a strange effect on birds. Some pigeon fanciers feed it to their birds to improve their stamina, and garlic-fed chickens are said to lay bigger eggs; but crows become stupefied if they ingest it. And while garlic breath is traditionally seen as a big turn-off, research last year suggested that chewing raw cloves could do wonders for your love life because allicin stimulates the body's production of nitric oxide - one of the active ingredients in Viagra.

Harvey McGavin

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