A parking lot in a tiny Michigan village seems like an unlikely place to go shopping for gourmet goods, but it was harvest time and a black SUV was awaiting customers. Piled high in the trunk, gathered in bunches ready for drying and labeled with an odd assortment of names like Georgian Red Crystal, Asian Tempest and Broadleaf Czech, this was no illegal booty awaiting drive-by customers. It was a treasure trove of heirloom varieties of hard-neck garlic, delighting the lucky few who were able to procure their annual supply of handpicked bulbs.
Seed Sources and Information
Why all the hubbub? Garlic is a staple in kitchens worldwide, but it is rare to experience garlic at its peak of freshness, when heirloom varieties really show off their nuanced differences. Taste and texture are remarkably vibrant, far from the dry, dense, almost chewy structure of the commercially produced garlic found on display in large, dry bins at grocery stores.
Garlic is used as much for its ability to transform otherwise ho-hum dishes into sharply flavorful meals as for its antibiotic, antioxidant and potentially aphrodisiac qualities. With the average American consuming 2.3 pounds of the heady stuff each year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture figures that on any given day, 18% of the population is consuming garlic in some form. But the majority of that garlic is a dehydrated component in processed food from a form of softneck garlic called “common garlic.”
Sorting out heirloom garlic
The common garlic of supermarkets is typified by having small cloves, tough outer skins and being well past its “best by” date. But it is ubiquitous because it’s easy to grow, easier still to process, inexpensive to produce and mostly imported from China. It also bears no resemblance to any of the roughly 500 heirloom varieties that continue to be cherished by real garlic aficionados. And don’t mistake “elephant garlic” for one of them. This plant, belonging to the leek family, may impress the eye with oversized cloves, but its size is a trade-off for milquetoast flavor.
The other family of garlic is hardneck, with as many varieties and personality profiles as my best friend’s large extended family from Sicily. With horticultural references such as Bavarian, Rocombole, Serpent, Porcelain and Purple Stripe, hardnecks are noted for their thick center neck, with 4 to 12 large cloves of pure flavor arranged around it. Cultivars like the aptly named Music from the Porcelain family are tender and creamy white, a mixture of spice and floral fragrance. The fresh cloves yield under the slightest pressure from the knife, creating a juicy and smooth paste in one quick smear. Heirloom varieties range from bulbs that are immediately super hot and spicy like Bogatyr of the Purple Stripe family to others like Chesnok Red with a mellow sweetness that reveals itself only when roasted into caramelized nuggets and makes it a popular choice for baking.
Garlic fans lucky enough to live in areas with perfect garlic-growing conditions (any mild climate with enough cold to “set” the bulb before overwintering) can successfully harvest heirloom varieties. The best seed producers release their cloves in September, in time to plant about six weeks before the ground freezes, and it’s often a race to order the best varieties before they run out.
Best of all, growing your own or knowing a farmer who does affords an extra garlic treat. The scapes, or wildly curvaceous flowering stems that sprout in the early spring, can be harvested and used in any salad or stir-fry in May and becomes a harbinger of good things to follow in July, when the full plant bulbs are ready to pull from the ground, start enjoying or hang to dry.
Roasted Garlic Aïoli
My biggest regret about a recipe like aïoli is that the two core ingredients, extra virgin olive oil and garlic, are at their freshest at opposite ends of the calendar. But sourcing a Southern hemisphere olio nuovo in a Northern hemisphere summer can solve that problem pretty simply. Incorporating a little mashed potato into the dip adds a creamy structure. I have Deenie Yudell, design manager of the J. Paul Getty Trust, to thank for this trick she shared with me over 30 years ago.
6 cloves fresh garlic
1 Yukon gold potato
2 tablespoons good white wine vinegar
2 egg yolks
1½ – 2 cups extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
1. Roast 5 cloves of the fresh garlic in a skillet over a low-medium flame until the paper sheathing is browned and the cloves feel soft and pliable to the touch.
2. Boil the potato in boiling salted water along with the other clove of garlic. When it is tender, drain and mash.
3. Using an open whisk, combine the mashed garlic cloves and mashed potato with the white wine vinegar until well mixed. Add the egg yolks, unbeaten, and whisk vigorously while slowly adding olive oil in a thin stream until reaching your desired consistency. Finish with salt and pepper to taste.
Top photo: Georgian Crystal garlic. Credit: Caroline J. Beck