An ode to an odorous bulb

There is usually a faint fragrance of garlic hanging around my house at this time of the year – and it’s not part of some master plan to discourage those shopping-bag toting vampires, werewolves and other cute little demons that will be wandering about the neighbourhood next week.

The aroma wafting up from the basement comes from the bumper crop of bulbs I harvested this summer and is what my long-suffering wife describes to curious visitors as “just the stockpile from his garlic growing hang-up.”

For some people garlic is just … garlic. The little white bulbs brought home from the supermarket as an afterthought to add some zing to the spaghetti sauce or chuck in with the Sunday roast. And unfortunately, it’s usually the Asian variety that ends up in the shopping cart – those tasteless fossilized bulbs stacked in white mesh socks that were responsible for clobbering the livelihood of local Ontario garlic producers when they flooded the market in the 1980s and 1990s. However, while the imported varieties clutter up the vegetable aisles, local garlic has experienced somewhat of a renaissance in the last few years, with fresh Ontario bulbs on display in farmers markets, specialty shops and grocery stores, giving customers a new appreciation of what a real garlic clove should taste like.

Grown-in-Ontario garlic can range in flavours from subtle to 'call the fire department!' PHOTO: Steven Chadwick
Grown-in-Ontario garlic can range in flavours from subtle to ‘call the fire department!’
PHOTO: Steven Chadwick

I started growing the stuff years ago when I was lucky enough to acquire a little vegetable-growing paradise at the Leslie street allotment gardens; about the same time I had begun to notice the usual late summer supply of Ontario-grown garlic was becoming more or less extinct in local supermarkets. My little plantation began modestly enough with 25 cloves separated from a few bulbs acquired from an Ontario grower that I haphazardly buried in trenches during an early October sleet storm. The following July, those tiny cloves produced 23 plump bulbs (two had apparently ascended to garlic heaven), which encouraged me to increase the number of plantings and try more exotic types. Last summer, after few years of soil amendments and a couple of gallons of fish emulsion, I managed to dig 200 bulbs from 15 different varieties. And despite my wife’s protests, last week I upped the ante by mapping and planting 300 cloves from 21 varieties.

With over 600 distinct cultivars of garlic derived from the 10 types of the hardneck (Allium sativum var. Ophioscorodon) and softneck species (Allium sativum var. sativum) there are plenty of choices available for home gardeners and fanatical mini-farmers like myself. Most are named after the region of the world where they are successfully grown such as Lenningrad, Russian Red, Portugal Azores 2, and even Northern Quebec. In Ontario 90 per cent of garlic grown is the hardneck type, which is more suited to our colder winters than the more temperate softnecks that thrive in Asia and southern Europe. The most popular and widely grown crop is a tasty and dependable porcelain hardneck with the unlikely name of Music. As the story goes, it was called ‘Music’ after Al Music, an Ontario farmer who ditched his tobacco crop and began propagating a single variety of garlic he had acquired from Italy.

Like fine wine, many garlic varieties have a distinct and identifiable flavour ranging from the relatively mild and smooth taste of Georgian Crystal, to the call-the-fire-department horseradish hot of Bogatyr and Metechi. If you frequent garlic festivals around the province (like I do) you might hear the occasional grower lapse into wine-speak, using terms like ‘delightful bouquet,’ ‘full-bodied fruitiness’ or ‘delicate aftertaste’. So far garlic tasters haven’t graduated to anything as outrageous as “a brooding impertinent mistress that tickles the palate, finishing with an earthy full-bodied flavour stolen from the Basque countryside,” although, come to think of it, that does more or less sum up my prized and rare L’ail Rose de Lautrec, a ‘brooding’ pink tender Creole from the south of France, that gets pretty impertinent if it has to endure a bone-chilling Canadian winter.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, next year’s crop is safely planted in the plot protected with a straw mulch while last summers smelly stockpile is patiently waits to be ingredients in my cooking, pickling, grinding, mashing, smashing and baking experiments. Everything from garlic soup, bread, chips, cakes and flakes to homemade garlic powder is on the menu. And dinner guests beware – next on the list may be garlic brownies, ice cream and chocolate covered cloves.

Steven Chadwick is a professional gardener/horticulturist, and longtime Beach resident

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