Around this time of year, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, there’s a whiff in the Gilroy-Hollister area. As we drove home from Los Angeles, I smelled it when I rolled down my windows for some fresh air. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it for a few minutes. Then suddenly it dawned on me.
“Do you smell that?” I asked Alex, who was driving.
“I smell GARLIC!” I triumphantly shouted, as I finally named that nagging scent in the back of my mind. It must have been planting season in Gilroy where garlic farmers are sowing in preparation for next year’s harvest.
Smelling garlic and passing Gilroy reminded us that it was time to plant our own garlic, a project we’ve discussed for a long time but haven’t taken action on yet.
One of the greatest benefits of learning about food, particularly garlic, is encountering the vast variety that exists. There are hundreds of different garlic varieties, possibly thousands.
- Spanish Roja
- Walla Walla Early
- Russian Redstreak
- Purple Glazer
- Asian Tempest
These are some of the whimsical names of different types of garlic, often named after the place where they were first discovered. However, the downside of so much variety is the difficulty in deciding which garlic varieties to plant. Hence, we’ve been procrastinating the decision.
As Alex and I learn more about the different types of garlic that exist, we started wondering what these kinds of garlic taste like.
Are they spicy? Are they pungent? Are they sweet?
What kind of a food website focused on garlic doesn’t write about growing the bulb?
So finally, after months of talk and no action, we’re launching a new project to grow garlic in our balcony garden.
We’re documenting the process of growing garlic varieties that we can’t find in the supermarket. (I call them “garlics” sometimes for convenience.) The project has two goals:
- To share how to grow garlic and share our mistakes so you can avoid them
- To describe gourmet garlic varieties you’ve ever heard of, let alone tried.
We’ll taste each variety and describe how they differ from each other.
And more importantly, we’ll share plenty of recipes that best highlight the flavors of these gourmet garlics.
Types of Garlic
“Garlic (scientific name Allium sativum) is a species in the onion genus, Allium”
There are two subspecies of garlic: hard-necked garlic (Ophioscorodon, ophios for short) and soft-necked garlic (sativum).
Fun Facts About Hardnecks
Hardneck garlic grows a scape, a long, hard, spindly stalk that grows from the bulb. It usually grows upwards and coils into 1-3 curls. From this stalk, the garlic plant can grow a bulbil which looks like a flower bloom.
In fact, it is not a flower but tiny cloves of garlic that are genetically identical to its parent plant.
If allowed to drop to the ground and take root, these mini cloves will grow. Each clove can turn into an adult garlic plant.
However, the scape is usually snipped off before it can “bloom” so that the garlic’s energy and therefore flavor remains concentrated in the bulb.
The scape is a delicacy.
There are many recipes calling for the scape in scrambled eggs. Personally, I love a stir-fry dish that my parents make using garlic scapes and smoked pork belly.
Hardneck varieties are known to produce larger bulbs and therefore larger cloves. Each hardneck bulb produces fewer cloves, often as few as 4 cloves, compared to softneck garlic, which can produce 10-30 cloves.
Hardnecks are split into the 5 “true” hardnecks:
- Purple Stripe,
- Marbled Purple Stripe, and
- Glazed Purple Stripe.
Then there are 3 “weakly bolting hardnecks”:
- Asiatic, and
Weakly bolting hardneck is a jargon term garlic growers love to use. As far as I can tell, it simply describes a hardneck garlic variety that is in between hardnecks and softnecks that can produce a scape under harsher conditions, such as intense heat or drought, but otherwise can grow like a softneck.
Hardneck garlic tends to grow well in colder climates, such as Canadian and Central and Eastern European climates.
Fun Facts About Softnecks
Softneck garlic does not have a scape. Instead, it has a soft stem that, when dried, can be braided. Softneck garlic is the type that you can use to weave a beautiful garlic bouquet.
The garlic you can find in the supermarket is most likely a softneck garlic because softnecks can be mechanically planted and they don’t require pruning because they don’t have scapes. Softnecks also produce a greater number of cloves and store for longer.
Softneck varieties are often smaller in size and sweeter than the hard-neck varieties. The translucent paper-like skin that covers the cloves is known to be stickier which makes peeling and preparing the softneck cloves for cooking more challenging than hardnecks.
Softnecks are split into 2 main categories:
- Artichokes and
Choosing Which Variety to Grow
For a vegetable like kale, it is easier to observe the differences. You can tell curly kale because of its distinctive curly leaves that twist and turn. Dino kale is straight-laced with sleek edges and a smooth leaf texture. Russian kale is very leafy and branches out from the noticeable reddish-purple stem.
How do you tell the difference between the various varieties of garlic?
They’re all white colored on the outside, albeit some have more distinct reddish-purple markings.
Size is one good indicator. Some bulbs tend to be much larger than others and produce many more cloves than others.
This is the main reason we’re growing different kinds of garlic and therefore the main measure of how we will differentiate the varieties from each other.
I’ve discovered it’s a lot harder to see the difference because the garlics all look the same to my untrained eye, other than the obvious color differences, such as the Lotus’ purple streaks or the Burgundy’s paper white outside and the deep wine-red cloves inside.
So, we’re excited about using our taste buds to differentiate the garlics (hehe).
The Varieties We Are Starting With
I purchased 4 garlic varieties from a farm in Washington state that specializes in garlic seed. They’re called Filaree Garlic Farm and they provide more than 100 different varieties of garlic collected from all over the world. According to their website, they have been around for more than 28 years, providing consumers with garlic seed to plant gourmet garlic varieties.
From their starter pack, we received the following 4 garlic varieties:
- Lotus (Turban – Weakly Bolting Hardnecks)
- Sicilian Artichoke (Artichoke – Softneck)
- Burgundy (Creole – Weakly Bolting Hardnecks)
- Mexican Red Silver (Silverskin – Softneck)
Because we plant garlic from the cloves, each plant is a genetic clone of its parent. This asexual reproduction means there’s no risk of cross pollination. So, we’re planting all the different varieties close together.
In the next article, we’re going to look at the gardening equipment we purchased to grow the garlic. We’ll also discuss the ideal time to plant the garlic so it is ready for harvesting next summer, with the tasty scapes coming in spring.