Years ago, in what feels like another life, I went to visit my former childhood neighbors who had moved back to the south of France. The entire experience was a culinary revelation for me (see: pan bagnat on the beach, bakery-fresh chouquettes every morning) but one meal stood out. A very typical dinner of grilled veggies and local meat was made complete with one tiny packet of foil filled with pure gold: a whole head of garlic, roasted until creamy and fragrant. We squeezed out the cloves and spread them on fresh bread like butter. It was an allium-epiphany.
My love for garlic is well-documented. In my family, every plate of Italian food involves a fork battle over any rogue cloves. But roasting garlic actually transforms it entirely. Garlic’s signature smell and taste are only released when the cloves’ cell walls are broken, as when it’s chopped (or chewed!). Rupturing garlic cells releases allicin, the chemical compound that gives garlic its pungent bite. As garlic cooks, that chemical reaction tones down, and the allium’s natural sugars start to caramelize (similar to onions) instead.