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Flash in the Pan

The nurture and nature of garlic



The difference between good and mediocre garlic is most evident in the kitchen—especially the kitchens of snobs and heavy users.

In the dining room, some tasters can detect flavor distinctions between garlic strains, but to most of us it makes no difference whether it's Spanish Roja or Pskem in the lasagna. When it's in your mouth it's the amount of garlic, more than the type, that impresses the most.

Those who use a lot of garlic are more likely to care about what they're using because it can make a huge difference in prep time. If you have bulbs composed of large, uniformly shaped cloves arranged symmetrically around a central axis, those will be much less work than a lumpy cluster of tiny misshapen cloves, the wispy wrappers of which stick to your stinky fingers. In my kitchen, good garlic is efficient garlic.

But hardly anybody grows good garlic, in part because the market doesn't reward it; most consumers don't know or care enough to demand the good stuff. The garlic strains usually grown commercially are chosen for ease of cultivation, not ease of peeling. Good garlic may require a few more steps, but it's worth it. Because few growers want to go that extra mile, most of the world's best garlic is grown at home.

I've been growing garlic since the mid-1990s. Because my stuff is consistently superior to what I see being sold, it's tempting to think I'm God's gift to garlic cultivation, or that I've somehow acquired a superior seed stock. Neither is true.

Good garlic is the product of both nature and nurture, a confluence of genes and life experience. Finding good genes is half the battle. Now is the best time to buy garlic for planting because it was just harvested last month, and the good stuff usually sells out fast.

Once you have a stash of planting garlic, all you have to do is treat it right. In the case of garlic black belt Ron Engeland, this means caring for your garlic "with the dedication of a champion chess player, and the fervent sincerity of a young priest."

I've addressed garlic cultivation in other articles, which are gathered into their own section of my website ( Beyond my dribbles of advice, what you really want is Ron Engeland's book Growing Great Garlic, which I can't recommend highly enough.

My favorite strain of garlic to grow is Romanian Red. The cloves are larger than some heads of garlic, and they peel like bananas. I found this delectable strain at the Tonasket Barter Faire in Washington state's Okanogan Valley. One day, after sampling a variety of homemade wines, I turned around to see a guy standing beside a pickup. In the back was a basket of the best-looking garlic I'd ever seen. For about $50 I bought enough to get my patch going. The seller was legendary garlic grower David Ronniger. The strain was Romanian Red.

Alas, after more than a decade of saving and replanting this garlic seed, a mathematical error last fall resulted in too little garlic being planted, which became too little garlic harvested this summer, which left me without enough to both eat and plant for the coming year.

Thus, after years of self-sufficiency, I find myself back in the market for garlic. It feels like I'm single again after a long relationship. The farmers market is like a dive bar where I search for new love. As I scan the offerings, preparing to actually pay for it, I can't stop comparing those bulbs to my beloved Romanian Red.

But in a way it's kind of exciting, too. I mean, it's not like I'm out of Romanian Red. I grew 230 bulbs instead of the 455 that I needed. As I began searching the markets and researching online, I got excited about playing with some new varieties.

In my search I've usually had to look beyond the fact that most everything for sale is of the minus rather than plus size, focus on the underlying genetics, and assume I can grow it bigger.

I'm only interested in the flowering—or so-called hardneck—varieties because those tend to have larger cloves that peel easily. I prefer bulbs that have few rather than many cloves because it means bigger cloves.

The best candidate I've found so far at farmers market has been a hardneck called Russian Red—I'm a sucker for red garlic. Although the bulbs are small, the heads are symmetrical and contain three to five cloves each. I took a few back to the lab, where I confirmed what I suspected: the beautiful purple peels pulled off easily, and the flavor met my standards. I bought a sack for planting.

Meanwhile, I found a family-run garlic farm in Wisconsin online at Perusing the pictures, I became convinced these folks not only know how to select good strains, but they know how to grow them, too. For a lot more money than I spent at the Tonasket Barter Faire I bought five heads each of Russian Inferno, Turkish Giant, Chinese Red and White, Vostani, Zemo, Pskem and Metechi.

Once you find the garlic seed you want, you need to figure out how much to buy. Thanks to high school algebra that I somehow retained, I was able to pull off what will probably go down as my crowning achievement in the field of mathematics: I derived an equation to figure out how much garlic I should plant, and here it is:

x = z / (y - 1)

You solve for x, the number of bulbs you need to plant. Y is the average number of cloves per bulb of the strain you're planting (with Romanian Red, y = 5). And z is the number of bulbs you want to eat in a year. In my case, z = 365, or one bulb per day.

Solving the equation with my variables, x = 91 bulbs worth of Romanian Red need be planted for a year's supply of garlic, with enough leftover to plant.

The fact that I was able to derive such a rocket science level equation, much less solve it, is testament to the whoop-ass a garlic snob can muster when his stash depends on it. But really, doing a little algebra is a small price to pay for a year's worth of ease in the kitchen, and for spending my life with garlic I love.

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