If you walk down the old staff stairs behind the green baize door in the corner of the saloon and turn into what used to be the staff dining room, today you will find the beginning of the Egyptian Exhibition. This explores the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun by Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter nearly 100 years ago and winds its way through the old cellars using the atmospheric low ceiling heights and rough brick walls to great effect.
Half way through your journey, you step gingerly into a vaulted dark cellar which remains quite gloomy. It is kept dim and partially closed off to give an inkling of what it must have felt like to peer through a tiny gap into a shadowy and spectacular world not seen for three thousand years. However, for all the glitter of gold and larger artefacts in the tomb, there were also thousands of everyday objects which depicted the pharaoh’s everyday life, from music to hunting, clothes and regalia but also what he ate.
One of these foods was garlic, used for millennia not just as a flavouring but also as a medicinal treatment. The physician Hippocrates (460-370 BC), known today as “the father of Western medicine,” prescribed garlic for a wide range of conditions including respiratory problems, poor digestion and fatigue. It contains various of the B vitamins, calcium, iron , zinc and a whole load of other goodies which help fight bacteria and even possibly help to fight cancer and heart disease. In any case, like many of you, I make sure it is included in a lot of my cooking.
Many of the books I write don’t really fall into a single literary category and my latest, “Seasons at Highclere” is no different. I wanted to create a book which looked at the history of the landscape around Highclere, the imperatives which have driven its creation and our efforts to preserve and enhance it whilst producing food but which also included a collection of my favourite seasonal recipes. I was thinking about what boosts our health and makes us happy and sharing it through photographs, painterly words, stories and archives to draw you in.
Last winter was tough. The vaccines and boosters were not yet available and, like everyone, there was no way I wanted to catch covid. As a result, I became quite obsessed with making Toum, a traditional Lebanese garlic dish which my number six sister and her husband introduced me to. You can use it as a dip, , marinate chicken and lamb in it or even add it to a large dish of roasted vegetables.
I have made it in a number of different ways beginning with a pestle and mortar to break down the garlic and it is really a type of mayonnaise but without using an egg as the emulsifier. It can be thin or thick, though that is a slightly more delicate process to achieve.
You need a fresh garlic bulb, peeling the cloves and splitting each one to take out the sharp strand of green inside which makes the raw garlic more palatable. The sea salt adds flavour and friction.
The recipe from my book is set out below and it is the perfect thing to keep away all those January sniffles.
.Half a bulb of fresh garlic (about 6 cloves) with the little green heart cut out and removed.
.A pinch of good sea salt.
.Juice of half a lemon.
.200 ml/6 ½ flu oz. of plain sunflower or rapeseed oil (not olive oil as it is too strong a flavour and will overpower the garlic).
Traditionally a pestle and mortar and a lot of patience was used to break down the garlic with the salt but these days it is infinitely quicker to use a hand blender or food processor.
- Put the garlic and salt in a bowl and pulse in short bursts until finely minced, occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl so all the garlic is caught.
- Add 1 teaspoon lemon juice and continue processing until a paste begins to form. Then add a second teaspoon lemon juice and process until completely smooth and slightly fluffy.
- Keep the blender running and slowly drizzle in the oil in a very thin stream, 1 table spoon at a time, followed by little lemon juice. Repeat with another tablespoon of oil and the remaining lemon juice. Continue the process, alternating the oil with a smidge of water, until all the oil has been incorporated. Transfer the toum to a jar and store in the fridge for up to 1 month.
Serve with flat bread, roasted vegetables, sourdough …