When you attend a farmers market where garlic is being sold, you may see the bulbs being marketed as ‘Gourmet Garlic’, but does that label actually mean anything? Perhaps surprising to some, ‘Gourmet Garlic’ isn’t just a marketing gimmick. Although not every bulb labeled gourmet is authentic as such, there are definite differences between gourmet garlic and the standard garlic you purchase at the supermarket.
Gourmet garlic begins with exceptional planting stock. Each clove selected for planting should be plump, firm and, above all, healthy (Growing Gourmet Garlic Part 2: Choosing Which Bulbs to Plant, Growing Gourmet Garlic Part 4: Cracking and Clove Selection). The soil in which the garlic is to be planted must also be healthy, nutrient-rich and well-prepared (Growing Gourmet Garlic Part 3: When to Plant and Soil Preparation). Careful attention must also be paid to the method of planting. Stock intended for a gourmet market is normally planted by hand and spaced further apart than the more intensively farmed garlic often used in processing. Planting by hand minimizes clove damage and the extra space allows the plants more room to grow larger bulbs. We plant our cloves at least 6 in. to 8 in. apart (Growing Gourmet Garlic Part 5: Spacing, Planting, and Mulching), and we have noticed that it really does make a difference in the overall size of our bulbs, although some cultivars are naturally larger than others.
Gourmet garlic should also be grown naturally, without the use of pesticides or herbicides. Although this means we spend weeks each year on our hands and knees keeping the beds clear, we really do find that having weed-free rows positively influences garlic growth. Garlic is a poor competitor when it is small, so any help it can be given goes a long way. Another measure to help ensure that your garlic will produce the biggest bulbs possible is the timely removal of the scapes from the hardneck varieties. Although this makes a greater difference to some cultivars then others, removing the flowering stalk encourages the garlic to put more energy into producing a fatter gourmet bulb.
Hand-harvesting, as opposed to mechanical means, is the norm for gourmet garlic. Harvesting garlic by hand helps minimize damage, such as nicks or bruising, to the bulbs and also provides the opportunity for an initial round of culling of any bulbs that may be diseased or otherwise compromised. Damaged bulbs are then disposed of appropriately, reducing the risk that other bulbs may become contaminated. At Calling Quail we undercut and lift the garlic beds (those roots can be long!) and then pick up each bulb by hand for examination before it is placed in the harvest boxes. The harvest boxes are placed in storage after each bed has been pulled, minimizing the exposure of the bulbs to the sun.
Once in from the field, gourmet garlic is cleaned and clipped by hand. Each of our bulbs has the stalk cut to 1 in. and the roots trimmed to approximately 1/2 in. This length of stalk not only provides a sturdy handle, but also helps the bulb remain tightly wrapped in as many layers of skin as possible. The layers of outside skin help prolong storage capability, in part by preventing moisture, insects, and disease-causing organisms to enter and spoil the bulb.
We cut the stalks and roots of our bulbs using a modified band saw. The speed and sharpness of the saw enables us to get a quick, clean and even cut, which not only looks neat, but also prevents any sharp edges that may damage neighboring bulbs in storage and transit. Processing the garlic by hand this way prevents bruising and mechanical damage, and also gives us a chance to double-check the integrity of each bulb. We also make sure to remove any lingering clumps of dirt from the roots, since this will add extra moisture and, well, dirt to the storage space.
While being cut, the bulbs are also sorted into different size groups. Gourmet garlic should consist of bulbs that are uniform, large and heavy for that particular cultivar. Our very large bulbs from each type we save for seed, and we have seen an increase in the average size of our bulbs over the last few years. Our normal large-sized and average sized bulbs for each cultivar are either sold wholesale or put into our market bags, and our smallish average and small-size bulbs are saved back to be processed into a variety of products, or consumed by us.
Before we pack up a shipment for wholesale or put together bags for market, the designated bulbs are checked for firmness, and any loose or damaged skins are removed. The bulbs are also brushed to make sure that only a minimal amount of dirt still clings to the root area. Our storage area is monitored for appropriate temperature and humidity, and we leave the garlic in storage until just before an order needs to go out. Only then is the garlic packed accordingly into airy boxes which hold no more than 20lbs of garlic each.
So you can understand why, with all this careful work, that we designate certain garlic as gourmet. But, there is more to it than that. Gourmet garlic simply tastes better. Generations of cultivation have produced thriving plants whose taste and flavor is stronger, richer, and more complex than the bleached, irradiated garlic for sale in a regular supermarket. The aroma is more pungent, the aftertaste lingers longer on the tongue, and the texture is firmer, plumper and juicier. You can select cultivars that are ideally suited to your individual taste and recipe, whether you prefer your garlic sweet, creamy and mild, or spicy enough to bring tears to your eyes.
And yes, gourmet garlic is more expensive than regular garlic – but knowing all this, don’t you think it’s worth it?