It's also a ritual that opens a window into a bank of memory I often return to for the absolute pleasure of recall. As a family, we love to cook together - gathering in a kitchen as much for the necessity of creating a meal as to run the whole gamut of our senses, whilst talking loudly, taking turns to choose music, divvy up the culinary tasks, lay the table, make cocktails, refill wine glasses and get a head-start on the washing up.
There's the sense of being involved in a kind of impromptu, hastily-choreographed piece of amateur theatre as we move around the kitchen - though each of us know our place in the cast well. My father, for example, never actually 'cooks'. His role something akin to a 'sommelier on holiday'; slowly working his way through our drink orders whilst inspecting the raw ingredients for the meal (holding aloft and admiring a giant beef tomato or peering into pans bubbling away on the stove).
Strategic partnerships are formed; my sister and mother team up to peel potatoes, my brother and I wash vegetables, slice tomatoes and discuss the merits of a honey and mustard dressing over balsamic vinegar and olive oil. My husband and mother discuss tips for roast spuds, before he departs to the barbecue, corralling my father on the way and the two of them talk all things Steely Dan as the coals begin to glow.
Holiday cooking is especially memorable and, whilst chopping the garlic for this evening's dinner, my thoughts wound back to last year's trip; deep in the heart of the Loire Valley, in a huge, rambling old stone farmhouse with cows and sheep for neighbours.
The days were hot and lazy and, as dusk slid towards nighttime, my family and I gathered in the kitchen, damp-haired and fresh from showers that had washed away another day of sun cream and swimming pool chlorine. Rural France has a way of slowing time to the perfect pace; that seemingly infinite gentle tick-tocking of passing hours where rushing anything would be sacrilege.
With a gin and tonic at my side, I turned my attention to the first item on my part of the culinary 'to do' list of this particular evening's meal. Earlier in the day, we'd been to the local market and bought fist-sized bulbs of smoked garlic, their outer skins burnished, conker-like and potent with the scent of woodsmoke. They made my heart sing to hold them to my nose and inhale their mouth-watering perfume; the promise of a delicious dinner tantalisingly at hand.
The accoutrements of any holiday home kitchen can often, at best, be described as rudimentary, and our farmhouse was no exception. On arrival, my husband, a past-master on such matters, proclaimed the knives '... blunt as cricket bats...' and promptly collected them up to sharpen on a handy lump of stone sitting just outside the kitchen door, perhaps intended for this very purpose. Thus imbued with a little more bite, I selected an appropriate tool and cracked open a bulb of garlic.
The joy of breaking open a brand new bulb is far greater than that of driving a teaspoon through the foil of a fresh jar of coffee, or smacking a Terry's Chocolate Orange on a solid surface and feeling the satisfying separation of the wedges beneath the foil wrapping.
The novelty red plastic apple-shaped cutting board, warped by a hundred cycles through the dishwasher, wasn't the most glamorous of surfaces upon which to honour the queenly garlic, but it would have to do (the other, wooden, boards having already been appropriated for their tasks by my brother and sister). It wasn't to matter, however, as the heavenly scent began to diffuse into the warming air inside the kitchen the moment I broke open the clove.
As second, then a third and fourth clove joined the first, sprinkled with salt to give the knife added purchase, I began to chop. Back and forth, back and forth, sweeping pieces from the knife edge with my finger to join the mound of dense, oily deliciousness taking form on the cutting board.
There exists a rhythm to the process of cooking, brought into sharpest focus by the repetition of chopping (grinding also having as big a part to play in this respect). When a recipe calls for 'finely chopped' - whether decreed in a cookery book or by my own design - I rejoice; for here is a moment to be as humanly mechanical as domestically possible, whiling away a moment to the sensory satisfaction of one's own motions. It is a time to be thankful, truly, for what we are about to receive.
The kitchen around me hummed with the industry of a meal in the making but, for a spell, my garlic and I were alone. I cannot recall the resultant meal nor remember what other tasks I undertook to help it to fruition. Those beautiful, smoky bulbs of garlic will, however, ride along with me all my life, just like the Christmas oranges my Grandfather forever recalled as a highlight of his childhood.
Thus, garlic is rooted in my consciousness as a player in so many of my very happiest memories that I've never minded anyone else having the whiff of it about them.
Some things are so humble as to be made for exultation; their simplicity becomes a motif stamped upon my heart and I am just a slave to nostalgia, after all. Can I make it official, here and now, that when I'm dead and gone, my mortal remains be mixed in with the soil of a garlic crop?