Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Kicking up a stink over garlic

There are serious and pressing issues in Italy these days, such as saving the national airline and approving the country’s pension reforms. Oh yes, it's also the beginning of the summer, so highway traffic and accidents are also on top of travelers' worries.

But this being Italy, food is never far down below the list of people’s interests ... and in recent weeks a singular debate has raised a culinary stink among average citizens, politicians and prominent personalities alike.

At the center of the controversy ... garlic, and whether the pungent bulb is simply destroying the taste of everything it touches (including your palate) or whether it is an ingredient absolutely necessary to prepare some of Italy's best-known dishes.

"I will make people understand that Italian cuisine without garlic exists," says Filippo La Mantia, one of Italy’s best known chefs, preparing a dish of almond, basil and citrus pesto.

"In the U.S. when people see garlic they think about spaghetti or pasta, but that is wrong," he says.

In fact La Mantia says garlic is a leftover from when Italians were poor and needed it to enhance the flavor of their scanty meals. Today fresh produce such as basil, wild mint, capers, pine-nuts and fennel are readily available and are all substitutes of garlic he says.

La Mantia's no-garlic approach turned into a nationwide "get rid of garlic" campaign supported by a prominent TV journalist who is now writing a guide of garlic-free restaurants.

"It happened to me to kiss a lady who was eating garlic and it was terrible, the worst kiss of my life," he told me with a subtle smile. He also happens to be a close friend of another garlic-phobic personality, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi ... who famously insisted that his staff should always have mint-scented breath.

"Silvio Berlusconi hates garlic. He says it's not educated to eat garlic before speaking with somebody, before going to a business meeting. He hates garlic socially," Rossella added.

I took a quick stroll at Campo dei Fiori, one of Rome's oldest and best known farmers markets which supplies this city's most renowned restaurants. Each stands features long braids of garlic; fruits and vegetables complete a colourful display of smells and tastes.

Claudio Zampa smiles at me when I ask him if garlic is going to disappear from Italian tables. "Garlic stinks ... so what?" he says. "It's a battle of a small minority, something for the elite."

Statistics are on his sides. For all its prominent backers, the anti-garlic campaign may be a lost cause. Italians consumed more than 100 million pounds of it in 2006, up 4 percent over the previous year.

I'm not a food critic so I won't venture into taking sides here. I've eaten at La Mantia's restaurant and liked just about everything he prepared. When I'm at home I use garlic, onion and butter. So if you wonder whether garlic enhances the flavor or makes your breath stink, all I can answer is: Probably both.

Watch my report

-- From Alessio Vinci, CNN Rome Bureau Chief
I am from the Middle East and a lot of our dishes are full of garlic, also in many sauces and dips. It is said that it is a healthy addition to the meal. Considering that a lot of people have a smelly breath anyways, garlic is not an exception. Like onion, curry and many other food spices, you tend to avoid them when you have an important social meeting. I know a lot of italians who insist on garlic in their meals, it's sort of an identity, like wine with the French. I don't think any agenda to remove it from the Italian cuisine will succeed, it adds flavour and spice to life with the help of pasta.
Richard D. Toronto. Canada.
For those who absolutely hates garlic, it's really good.I agree that the smell is horrible, and I never want to kiss anyone with a garlic smell... But I doo think it might be healthy. My grandmother actually eats some each day to stay healthy. I think it works, since she's 73 now, and much more active than I'll ever be.
Besides, there are many recepies where you actually want some garlic. So I agree with beatleship: I don't think it'll work...
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