Ail Noir – Black garlic. Black Garlic in French Cuisine.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman

Peeled black garlic.
Garlic is an integral part of French cuisine, and apart from white garlic you will find pink and rose garlic as well as rocambole, giant garlic, and wild garlic on the menu.  
I first noticed black garlic on a French menu in a small but excellent restaurant in Avignon some twelve years ago.  The server told me it came from Japan and for a few moments, I was sure that I was hearing about a new member of the garlic family that I had not seen or heard of in Japan.  But, no, black garlic is not a cultivated member of the garlic family and the idea of new garlic plant vanished faster than it had arrived.  The chef’s wife who was the Maitre D’ brought her husband out of the kitchen.  Then with a combination of my disastrous French and the chef’s limited English, I was looking at a bottle of black garlic which I misunderstood to contain pickled white garlic plants.  The word that was repeated over and over was the word umami, a word much used in Japanese cuisine for a unique taste but then rarely heard in France.
Black garlic is not fermented, pickled or caramelized.
A few more inquiries and I learned that white garlic when very very slowly cooked in a very a humid and closed environment at 60 ᵒC (140ᵒF) for a period of 30 – 45 days turns black. The garlic that comes out of the cooker is black, soft and chewy without any white garlic smell or taste but its effect on other dishes is impressive, it adds a unique flavor to the dishes with which it is combined. 

How white garlic becomes black over 30 days
Black garlic in French cuisine:
Carré d’Agneau En Croûte d’Olives Et Ail Noir, Jus Aux Bourgeons De Sapin –A rack of lamb cooked en croute, in a covering of olives and black garlic, and served with its natural cooking juices flavored with pine buds. For a few weeks in late spring, lime-green buds appear on pine trees; the buds that left alone would become new needles. However, before then these buds will be picked and become part of many recipes from salads to flavors in sauces, like this listing, and in alcoholic drinks with excess buds being pickled. 


Cochon Noir de Bigorre, Sauce à l’Ail Noir et Oignons de Trébons –  The black Bigorre AOP heritage pig roasted with black garlic and the sweet green onions of Trébons. The pig and the onions from Trébons both come from the old French Province of Bigorre up against the Pyrenees.  That area is part of ancient Gascony but now part of the new super-region of Nouvelle Aquitaine.

Black garlic chocolate cupcakes.
Lapin Farci au Chèvre Frais, Ail Noir et Criste Marine, Courgette Grillée et Radis – Rabbit stuffed with fresh goat’s cheese, black garlic, and the vegetable salicornia served with grilled courgettes, (zucchini in the USA) and radishes.  Salicornia or samphire in English and Christ Marine, Perce-pierre or Haricot de Mer in French is often mistakenly called an edible seaweed.  Salicornia, of which there are many family members, grows in salt marshes along the coast but not in the sea; its shape, not its taste, also gives it another name, sea asparagus.
Suprême de Pintade à l’Ail Noir, Choux Verts Grillés et Oignons Paille – Breast of guinea fowl cooked with black garlic and served with grilled green cabbage and a pale brown onion called the straw onion in French.

Slowly roasted and pickled okra, with smoked black garlic,
creme fraiche and ‘thai holy’ basil.
Tartare de Boeuf Coupé au Couteau, Aïoli à l’Ail Noir, Parmesan et Frites  Noir, Parmesan et Frites  – Hand-cut steak Tatar served with an aioli made with black garlic and served sprinkled with shavings, copeaux,  of Parmesan, all accompanied by French fries.  When you have the choice for a steak Tatar choose hand-cut beef for its far different, and superior, texture to the slurry or little lumps that is the texture of nearly all minced meat.
Tentacule de Poulpe Doré, Fondue d’Oignons, Citronnelle, Purée de Pois Cassés au Citron Kéfir, Pulpe d’Ail Noir – An octopuses’ tentacle fried until golden and served with an onion jam, flavored with lemongrass and a puree of split-peas flavored with kaffir lime and the pulp of black garlic.

Baby octopus, black garlic,
pork belly, celeriac.
Japanese Cuisine and France.
In 1928 George Auguste Escoffier, the chef who with his friends brought French cuisine intp the 20th century, became the first Honorary President of WACS, the World Chefs Society in Paris.  WACS was the first organization that linked chefs around the world and it is still very active today. It was set up in France by Escoffier’s pupil Akiyama Tokuzō, Chef to the emperor of Japan and from that day onwards French cuisine would be open to Japanese flavors.
Nevertheless, any serious Japanese influence would wait until the 1980s when many French chefs were tasting and experimenting with other cuisines and Japanese restaurants became part of the French landscape. The specific taste uniquely associated with Japanese cuisine, and the one that has really made the difference in French cuisine was umami.

Pureed black garlic
From childhood, we learn to identify tastes that can be clearly separated one from the other. The limits of our language easily recognize the four tastes that we call sweet, sour, bitter and salty.  However, there always was another taste that would sometimes roll around in our mouths, and as we had no word for it, we just called it tasty. 
However, long before we were children, in 1907, Professor Kikunae Ikeda at Tokyo University had already identified that other taste and he called it umami.  Professor Ikeda named the taste he had classified as “umami” from the Japanese words for delicious and taste.  The taste comes from monosodium L-glutamate and its effect on our taste buds.  It is a naturally occurring taste but can also be added as a taste enhancer.  Many chefs define umami as a hint of meat and savory with a note of Balsamic vinegar; you know the taste is there even if you do not use the word umami.   Black garlic is not included in French cuisine because it sounds good on the menu; it is there because it brings that unique umami taste to certain dishes.

Marinated summer cucumbers, sunflower, sesame, black garlic.
Why does white garlic turn black?
We know that the garlic turns black from its long slow cooking but why does it turn black and not green or red?  For that matter why does baked bread turn brown?  Boiled chicken does not become brown and mashed potatoes do not become brown while roast chicken and roast potatoes do; why?  The white to brown or black change is not a result of burning or caramelizing as baked bread and roast potatoes and roast chicken are not caramelized.  They, along with toast and malt beer, change color because of the “Maillard Reaction.”

An example of the Maillard reaction.
You can also burn the toast, but that’s another reaction.
It was a French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard who first described the reaction in 1912 while at the University of Paris.  Maillard explained how certain foods are darkened by cooking, not just by caramelizing or pickling or fermenting, though they have their own coloring effects. White garlic becomes black garlic because it has been Maillardized.

Louis-Camille Maillard in 1910
Black garlic in France.
Black garlic is imported from Korea and Japan, who both claim black garlic’s creation. Alongside the imports is the black garlic that has been produced in France for over ten years. The first French artisanal producer of Ail Noir was probably Laurent Girard in Billom in a small town and commune, in the department of Puy-de-Dôme in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes in central France.
Many things that make French Cuisine special come from the region of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes.  To its black garlic add its famous and abundant AOP cheeses, Bresse butter and cream AOP and Bresse AOP poultry, and then to all that add Michelin.  Only 28 km (17 miles) from Billom is the city of Clermont-Ferrand the headquarters of the second biggest tire manufacturer in the world Michelin.  Michelin began and still owns the Red Guide Michelin  that has done much to promote modern French cuisine.

The Michelin Man.
His name is Bibendum.
Connected Posts:
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Bryan G Newman
Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2018.
For information on the unpublished book behind this blog contact Bryan Newman

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