Good Garlic

By | May 13, 2013
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My introduction to non-grocery store garlic came this winter through my neighbor here in Falmouth, Tom Hodgson. I’d starting in on making a clam sauce only to discover I had no garlic, an essential ingredient. So I phoned down the street. Tom sounded positively delighted that I’d called wanting to pinch some garlic.

When I arrived at his house Tom presented me with a whole bulb, assuring me he had tons more saved from his garden and I should take the whole thing. The garlic looked very different from your regular store-bought variety. There were fewer cloves but they were enormous and arranged in a single layer around a hard central stalk about a quarter inch thick that stuck up above the cloves. Garlics are divided into two classes, hardneck and softneck; this was a hardneck variety (named for that woody central stalk). Hardnecks are not grown on a large scale commercially, in part because they are slightly more labor intensive to grow. Tom, however, assured me when I went back to his house to chat garlic that growing garlic, even hardnecks, is “easy as pie.”

Garlic is planted in the fall. You can buy garlic seed Tom explained, “But the cheap New Englander’s way to grow garlic to go to the farmers’ market, buy a couple bulbs, and stick the clovers in the ground.” You plant the cloves three to nine inches apart and a couple inches down. Small green shoots come up in November that then stay put through the winter and resume growth in the spring. You harvest in July when the vertical leaves start to shrivel and brown, then dry the bulbs out of the sun for a couple weeks.

Tom, who is 65, has been growing garlic in his extensive home garden since he was in his twenties. He likes to experiment with different varieties and estimates he’s got ten to twelve different types in the ground this year, with three to four hundred lineal feet planted in total.

“I love growing enough so you can give it away,” he said. “It’s liberating to have all you want of something.” And unlike zucchini, he said, which you’ve got to either eat or give away quickly, you can harvest a huge amount and then spread consumption and gifting out across the year. 

Garlic is Carrie Richter’s favorite crop to grow. Carrie, age 36, single-handedly manages Peachtree Cirlce Farm in Falmouth on conservation land she rents from the Salt Pond Areas Bird Sanctuaries conservation group for a nominal yearly fee. The slopping tear-dropped shaped ten-acre parcel is mostly defunct orchards, and can be glimpsed while traveling south on Route 28 (it’s just off to the right where 28 stops being a divided highway as you head into Falmouth, look for the blue farm building).

“Everything about [garlic] is great,” Carrie told me when we met on a cold day in late January to take a peek at her garlic patch, where she’s planted about 3,000 cloves. The tiny green shoots sticking up out of the snow weren’t much to look at yet, but come late spring these hardneck varieties will grow ornate, curly-cue green stalks called scapes that can be grilled, sautéed or eaten fresh in salads. Carrie said the scapes “generate a lot of interest at market” and that she also includes the garlic flowers in her flower CSA. Cutting the scapes and flower is essential for growing a good head of garlic because once its showy top parts are pruned the plant will direct more energy towards plumbing out its below-ground bulb.

Carrie avers that grocery store garlic can’t compare with the fresh stuff. “As soon as your knife goes through it you know you’ve got something special,” she said. Fresh garlic is juicy and crunchy. “There’s a huge market for it,” Carrie said. “People love it. It’s kind of an all-the-rage crop right now.” The only USDA data I could get my hands on for per-capita garlic consumption stopped in 2001. It showed an increase from less than a quarter pound of garlic consumed per year in 1960 to over two pounds in 2001, with the greatest gains beginning in the early 1990s. Presumably consumption is even higher today, a decade later.

Carrie was actually overwhelmed last season by garlic enthusiasts after The Cape Cod Times wrote a piece about her crop. “The fallout from the article was almost absurd,” she said. Carrie doesn’t sell directly from the farm but people kept showing up asking to buy some, even knocking on the door of the small apartment attached to the farm building that is rented to a tenant totally unconnected with the farming operation. “It was like junkies,” Carrie laughed. “You know, like ‘come on, just give me one more’.”

As popular as garlic is right now, it’s interesting to note that garlic was not part of the Northern European, and by extension New England, diet until pretty recently. Garlic originated in Central Asia and has been used in Egypt, India and China for several millennia. About one thousand years ago it made its way into Southern European cuisine. But really only in the last one hundred years has it been used for cooking in Northern Europe. Tom Hodgson, my neighbor, grew up on Martha’s Vineyard and remembers households where garlic was considered an exotic item. Garlic, he mused, was “probably about as welcome in old New England as Catholicism … they’d heave onions by the pound into their clam chowder, but wouldn’t touch garlic.”

Jeff Deck of Not Enough Acres Farm in East Dennis knows something about that. Jeff farms on land that has been owned and cultivated by the Crowell family since 1713 (he’s married to a Crowell). He began growing garlic six years ago and sells a Red Russian variety, a hardneck garlic with purple skin, at his farm stand off Sesuit Neck Road. Jeff has been looking through the farm’s documents to compile a history of its operations and hasn’t found a single reference to garlic. As far as he knows he’s the first person in three hundred years to plant garlic on the property. Sitting in his office, under a framed print of ‘American Gothic’, Jeff, 56, handed me a leather bound farm ledger that contained records written in cursive with a pencil of the produce sold on the farm between 1929 and 1962. Not one entry for garlic. “[New Englanders] were more likely to throw five pounds of salt on something and eat it that way,” he said. Jeff avoids salt for health reasons but is liberal with his garlic. “It’s a good way to add flavor,” he said.

A final note on the medicinal use of garlic. It’s beyond my scope here to present an authoritative review of research into the therapeutic properties of garlic (a large and growing field of inquiry) except to say that garlic has been used medicinally for thousands of years and modern research supports at least some of these uses. Garlic’s antibacterial properties are firmly established, and there are even studies showing that allicin, the anti-bacterial agent in garlic, might be effective in fighting “superbugs” that have grown resistant to standard antibiotics. Allicin is destroyed when garlic is cooked in oil, so cooked garlic does not have the same therapeutic value as raw garlic. During a recent prolonged sinus infection I gave my friend’s prescription of raw garlic mixed with peanut butter and maple syrup a shot: the taste was surprisingly palatable. (I’m not sure if it helped, and the next day I did break down and get some antibiotics—maybe if I’d starting eating the garlic before my sinus began to throb I would have had more luck.) The National Institute of Cancer’s website states “preliminary studies suggest that garlic consumption may reduce the risk of developing several types of cancer, especially cancers of the gastrointestinal tract.”

At any rate, flavoring with garlic is a healthy alternative to salt, and so, as Jeff Deck enthusiastically prescribes: “Eat more garlic!”

Elizabeth Saito is a freelance writer. She is the author of My Spohr Gardens: A Child’s Guide to the Flowering Plants, Trees, and Shrubs of a Unique Cape Cod Garden. Elizabeth lives with her family in Falmouth.

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