Fat Rooster Farm

 

Growing Garlic

The 'Stinking Rose' Has Prominent Place on South Royalton Farm

By Nicola Smith
For the Valley News

The chef Louis Diat, best known as the inventor of vichyssoise, had this to say about garlic: "Without garlic I simply would not care to live," he declared. And, further, "There are five elements: earth, air, fire, water and garlic." Diat was the head chef at the Ritz-Carlton in New York when, in 1917, he concocted vichyssoise, the chilled leek and potato soup which, his avowals notwithstanding, contains not one iota of garlic.

Valley News

But Diat was on to something when he aligned garlic with the elements of earth, air, fire and water. Save salt, onion or pepper, I can think of no other ingredient that is so essential in cooking. If you think of each dish as a blank canvas, garlic, onion, salt and pepper are the elements by which you prime the canvas for further application of ingredients. They lay a foundation.

Not for nothing is garlic called the beautiful stinking rose, its cloves as tightly bunched as petals, its smell as heady and intoxicating, in its own way, as any fragrant flower. It would be hard to find any great cuisine, whether Chinese, Indian, Italian, French or Mexican, that didn't rely on garlic for depth and intensity of flavor, whether raw or cooked.

But for something I use every day, and in such quantity, I know remarkably little about it, which puts me solidly in the company of most consumers who don't pay too much attention to where their food comes from, or whether there is more than one kind of lemon, or onion or basil. To me, garlic is garlic is garlic: one head of garlic indistinguishable from another, impossible to peel but also impossible to do without. Little did I realize that there are hundreds of varieties, perhaps as many as 600 kinds of cultivated garlic grown world wide. The garlic you buy in the supermarket represents the tiny tip of an enormous garlic iceberg.

For a crash course on the subject, I turned to Jennifer Megyesi, who, with her husband, Kyle Jones, runs Fat Rooster Farm in South Royalton. Megyesi and Jones produce five different varieties of organically grown garlic — French Rocambole, Russian Red, German Red, Georgian Fire and Inchelium Red — in addition to more than 20 varieties of heirloom tomato, onions, sweet corn and greens.

All in all, they grow nearly 200 different kinds of vegetable, which they sell through local outlets and at farmers' markets and through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Of that, Megyesi estimates that garlic — 600 pounds of it — accounts for some 30 percent of their annual yield.

Megyesi is a woman who knows, and loves, her garlic. The kitchen in their farmhouse is strung with garlic braids, there's a garlic centerpiece on the table and there's a whiff of garlic in the air. She has laid out plates of three kinds of raw garlic in oil, and provided cheese and crackers and dilly beans to cut the overpowering taste. This is not a garlic-shy household.

For the uninitiated, Megyesi explains, the easiest way to begin learning about garlic is to recognize the difference between soft-neck and hard-neck garlics. When you buy garlic in the supermarket, you are invariably buying soft-neck, or common, garlic Allium sativum. There are two readily available types of soft-neck garlic that are found in stores: the "artichoke" garlic and the "silverskin." The bulk of these kinds of garlics is grown in and around Gilroy, Calif. — self-proclaimed garlic capital of the world. As the name suggests, soft-neck garlic has a soft, pliable neck around which the cloves cluster. The "artichoke" garlic is organized into two rings; the outer ring contains the larger, fatter cloves, the inner ring, the small cloves that diminish in size the closer you get to the neck. (You've probably, as I have, found those smaller cloves all but impossible to peel, and if you do peel them, the skins tend to adhere in exasperating limpet-like fashion, to your fingers.) "Silverskin" garlics have a whiter appearance and the cloves are uniformly small. They're particularly well suited to braiding.

The reason that soft-neck garlics predominate in the supermarkets, says Megyesi, is not only their appearance — a pleasingly clean, silvery sheen as opposed to the often brownish, purplish cast of the hard-necks, which typically look as if they've just been brought up from a dusty root cellar — but their longevity. A soft-neck can be stored from nine months to a year, while the hard-necks will last from four to six months, and then shrivel or desiccate to the point of unusability. It's not unusual for the soft-necks in supermarket to have been sprayed with an anti-sprouting agent.

It's when you get to the hard-necks (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) that you really begin to understand how versatile garlic is. They have names like Russian Red and Georgian Fire and Persian Star and French Rocambole and Spanish Roja and Carpathian and Bogatyr; they can be striped purple or pinkish, or have a faint blush of golden brown or violet. The hard-necks have a stiff unyielding neck, the remnant of the leaf stalk, around which are clustered four to 12 cloves of roughly the same size. If you pick up, for example, a French Rocambole, you'll be surprised by how easily the skin of the clove slips off, and by the largeness and plumpness of the clove itself.

And then there's the flavor. Once you have tasted one of the hard-necks, like French Rocambole or Russian Red, you'll see that, in fact, not all garlics are alike any more than all string beans are alike, or all squash. Raw, the hard-necks tend to have a stronger bite, almost a peppery, acrid quality, while the soft-necks seem milder and blander, with less of an aftertaste. Both soften with cooking, and some of the hard-necks are prized for their creaminess and sweetness when sauteed or roasted.

For such a sturdy kitchen workhorse, the plant itself is quite fussy and requires fairly solicitous tending. At Fat Rooster Farm, Megyesi and Jones plant cloves in the last week of October, when there's still enough warmth in the ground for the garlic to put down roots. Garlic benefits from the freeze-down time of winter; plant it in the spring and the heads will be much smaller. In fact, there are varieties of hard-neck garlic that won't grow in warmer climates because they need six months of wintering over.

In April, when the earth begins to thaw, it's time to mulch the plants, whose shoots can often be seen poking through the snow. Mulching continues through their growing season, from April to early August. Unlike the soft-necks, the hard-necks will throw up a flowering stem, called a scape, usually at the end of June or early July. Those need to be pulled off, or else they'll produce bulbils, and you want the plant to put its energy into the head below ground.

"They're heavy feeders," says Megyesi. "They need a lot of manure, they hate weeds." By the end of July and early August, the plants are ready to harvest. Then they need to cure, a two-week process that involves dusting, but not washing, them off, bundling them up and drying them outside. Once cured, the ideal storage for garlic is an earth cellar, a place that's not too dry and is well ventilated.

Megyesi and Jones reserve some 70 pounds of the best, the biggest heads for seed. "We are never left with a huge glut of garlic," says Megyesi. On a mild early winter day, in the fields below their farm, one can see the mounds of garlic, blanketed by snow, beginning their long winter sojourn until the ground begins to thaw and the garlic can send up its first tentative shoots.

Valley News — January 1, 2003