From Babylonian gluts to World War II shortages, via bad breath and eye-watering erotic adventures, Mark Riddaway on the long history of the allium family
Around 4,000 years ago in southern Babylonia, in what is now Iraq, the world’s oldest surviving written recipes were carved into three clay tablets. One of these, the best preserved, summarises the ingredients of 25 stews or broths, giving the very briefest of directions, while the other two contain fewer recipes in more detailed form. Among the many insights offered by these remarkable works of cuneiform is that the Middle East’s appetite for spicy, aromatic lamb stews is absolutely nothing new, and that leeks, garlic and onions—the commonest forms of allium—have been fundamental to the creation of such dishes since the dawn of civilisation.
One fairly typical recipe, for a dish called ‘tuh’u’, involves searing a leg of mutton, then folding in “salt, beer, onion, rocket, coriander leaves, Persian shallot, cumin, and red beet … leek and garlic”. After sprinkling some coriander seed on top, the cook adds kurrat—another allium, known as Egyptian leek—and a touch more fresh coriander. Despite the vast gulf of time that separates us from Babylon, it really isn’t hard to imagine—and appreciate—how this tagine-like dish would have tasted, and how fundamental to its success the sweet, acidic, umami charms of those alliums would have been.
Domesticated alliums first emerged in Asia, but where or when is hard to pinpoint: the wild ancestor of the common onion disappeared long ago, and wild garlic grows just about everywhere. Trying to track their progress has proved similarly futile—the growing and cooking of alliums leaves little trace—but it is clear from written sources found everywhere from Korea to the Levant that their ubiquity was established in ancient cultures across the length and breadth of Asia. It isn’t hard to see why. Alliums propagate easily and grow reliably. Some enjoy a rare longevity—the value of a vegetable that can be stored through the fallow months is easy to overlook in this time of constant plenty. And most importantly, they make everything they touch taste better. Wherever alliums were taken, they were received with open arms, and now there’s barely a corner of the globe where in one form or another they are not considered a native crop.
In Egypt, where the consumption of onion, garlic and leeks was represented in the decoration of tombs dating back to the Early Dynasty period, around 5,000 years ago, they were a staple food of the poor: Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, visited Giza and was told that 1,600 talents of silver, a vast sum of money, was spent on the mountain of radishes, onions and leeks needed to feed the workmen during the construction of the Great Pyramid around 2560BC.
Alliums were also used in funerary rites: onions could be used to fill the body’s cavities (for the mummy of Ramses IV, they served as false eyes), and preserved bulbs of garlic were found among the more gilded treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb. According to the Roman poet Juvenal, some Egyptians worshiped alliums as gods (“It is an impious outrage to crunch leeks and onions with the teeth / What a holy race to have such divinities springing up in their gardens!”), but then Juvenal wrote quite a lot of things about Egyptians that probably weren’t true.
According to the bible, it was while in captivity in Egypt that the Jews first developed a taste for alliums. In the Book of Numbers, the absence of delicious vegetables became a major source of irritation among the hungry, weary Israelites as they made their way towards the Promised Land: “We remember the fish which we did eat in Egypt freely: the cucumbers and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic,” they lamented. “But now our soul is dried away, there is nothing at all, besides this manna, before our eyes.” And while the whole exodus story is historically questionable, the enduring centrality of onions and garlic to Jewish culinary culture is absolutely not.
Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (77-79AD), provided an exhaustive list of the various onion varieties enjoyed in ancient Roman society, including the tiny, sweet ‘setanian’ onion, the ‘schistan’ onion, which could be stored through the winter with its leaves still on, and one from Cyprus, “which draws tears from the eyes” more than any other. He described the “peculiar nature” of the Ascalonian onion—probably a shallot—and wrote of how the spring onion was “employed for seasonings”. He also told the entertaining tale of how the leek (the most prized of which came from Egypt) had “recently acquired considerable celebrity from the use made of it by the Emperor Nero. That prince, to improve his voice, used to eat leeks and oil every month, upon stated days, abstaining from every other kind of food, and not touching so much as a morsel of bread even.” He doesn’t say how effective this was, but if leeks do improve singing, that would certainly explain the Welsh.
Throughout history, the one member of the almost universally loved allium family that has proven consistently divisive has been garlic, derided by some for its pungency and stench. In his Epodes, the Roman poet Horace howled with disgust after being served a garlicky dinner: “If any man, with impious hand, should ever / Strangle an aged parent, / Make him eat garlic, it’s deadlier than hemlock, / O you strong stomachs that cull it! / What poison is this that’s burning my entrails? / Has viper’s blood mixed with these herbs / Betrayed me?” The punishment Horace wished upon the garlic-loving friend who had fed him the dish was that “your girl with her hands obstructs your kisses, / And takes the far side of the bed!”
This—the passion-killing effect of alliaceous breath—was a consistent source of humour in the ancient world (as one Martial epigram advised, “Whenever you have eaten strong-smelling shreds of the Tarentine leek, give kisses with your mouth shut”). Perhaps unfairly, then, alliums were also widely believed to boost male virility. In the Talmud, in a set of laws attributed to the great scribe Ezra, Jewish men were instructed to eat garlic the night before the Sabbath, to help them make the most of the holiday, while in Rome, onions were seen as a reliable source of potency—unless, according to Martial, “your wife is old, and your member languid”, in which case “bulbs can do no more for you than fill your belly”.
The Perfumed Garden
This belief persisted down through the centuries in various cultures. The Perfumed Garden, a glorious work of 15th century Arabic smut, is full of men who, stuffed to the gunnels with onions, embark on erotic adventures that prove eye watering in every sense. One verse begins: “The member of Abou el Heiloukh has remained erect / For 30 days without a break, because he did eat onions.” There is also an intriguingly multi-stage recipe for increasing masculine endowment: “Procure [an ass’s member] and boil it, together with onions and a large quantity of corn. With this dish feed fowls, which you eat afterwards.”
It was the Romans who brought domesticated alliums to Britain. Since their arrival in the country, onions in particular have been a staple food of rich and poor alike—in the 14th century poem Piers Plowman, they were included among the meagre foods with which “the poor people” attempted to “please Hunger”, while that same century they also appeared on page after page of the royal cookery book Forme of Cury: these were foods fit for a king as well as a ploughman.
Unlike many vegetables, of which the meat-loving English ruling classes were traditionally suspicious, onions were considered to be remarkably palatable. Under the Galenic system of medicine, they were deemed ‘hot’ and ‘dry’, but not excessively so, making them, in the words of the 16th century herbalist John Gerard, “good for such as are replete with rawe and flegmatike humours”—a category that included a high percentage of his countrymen. On the one hand, the onion “causeth headach; hurteth the eies, and maketh a man dim sighted, dulleth the sences, engendreth windines, and provoketh overmuch sleepe”, but its “vertues” were deemed considerable too. Onions were “good against the biting of a mad dogge” (vaguely plausible given the antiseptic quality of onion juice) and “annointed upon a … balde head in the sunne, bringeth againe the haire very speedily” (less plausible, but worth a try). Leeks, too, were considered healthy. “The Welch, who eat them much,” wrote the 17th century writer and gardener John Evelyn, “are observ’d to be very fruitful.”
Garlic, though, was another matter altogether. In 1699, in his book Acetaria: A Discourse Of Sallets, John Evelyn noted that garlic was “both by Spaniards and Italians, and the more southern people, familiarly eaten, with almost everything”, but that here in Britain “we absolutely forbid it entrance into our salleting, by reason of its intolerable rankness”. As far as he was concerned, the only people garlic might be appropriate for were “northern rustics”, especially those who live in “moist places”, or possibly sailors, but “to be sure, ’tis not for ladies’ palats, nor those who court them”. He also stated that “the eating of it was (as we read) part of the punishment for such as had committed the horrid’st crimes”—a claim lacking any evidence, but one that would surely have been applauded by our Roman friend Horace.
This British mistrust of garlic, and its racist association with dirty, effete southern Europeans, persisted for centuries. In a letter sent from Naples in 1818, the poet Percy Shelley informed a friend that Italian countesses “smell so of garlick that an ordinary Englishman cannot approach them” (although, as he pointed out, that didn’t stop Lord Byron), and according to Mrs Beeton, who avoided it as best she could, “the smell of this plant is generally considered offensive, and it is the most acrimonious in its taste of the whole of the alliaceous tribe”. In 1944, George Orwell wrote of the British working class “that they regard such things as garlic and olive oil with disgust”, demanding instead “tea and puddings”.
Had there been a crisis in the supply of garlic during World War II, it is unlikely that Britons would have cared. But the crisis came in the onion supply, and that really was a problem. It is easy to imagine that over-reliance on foreign imports of fresh produce is a recent phenomenon, but at the start of the war in 1939 just about every onion consumed in the UK was being shipped from abroad: long-lasting onions could be imported so cheaply from Brittany, the Netherlands and as far away as Bermuda that British farmers had turned instead to more perishable, higher margin vegetables. When war broke out, the supply all but disappeared, and government efforts to encourage planting did little to help matters. In February 1941, the staff at The Times newspaper raffled a large onion for more than £4—more than the average weekly wage—and in 1943, one American visitor described this unlikely scene: “Served as a side dish at our luncheon of the regular three-course meal, which Englishmen religiously impose upon themselves in conformity with ration regulations, was a medium-size boiled Spanish onion. ‘You’ve been robbing a bank or playing with the black market,’ exclaimed the astonished husband.”
After the war, the onion supply gradually returned to normal, and the British could once again rely on their shepherd’s pies and Lancashire hotpots to have that irreplaceable sweet, acidic, umami base. Never again can such a situation be allowed to arise. Brexit is coming. Start planting now.