The very word can bring strong feelings. Some, like Engelland, fairly worship the bulb, while others such as the early Puritans, revile it as a root of the Devil, bringer of bad breath, strong and dangerous.
And the taste? The taste is one that, like it or not, one cannot ignore.
Garlic is one of the oldest "domesticated" plants, cultivated some 5,000 years ago on the South Siberian Peninsula and the Asiatic plains. Recent research suggests that garlic is a reducer of cholesterol and a potent immune system enhancer. Perhaps one of the most effective winter wards against cold and flu is, if you can, placing a clove between your gums and lip and slowly chewing it. Even "garlic breath," bane of many a garlic lover, is caused not by the garlic, but rather by the toxins within the body that are released as the garlic is metabolized. And, let us not forget, the dread vampire may be kept at bay by the powers of this maligned bulb.
Grand Traverse County resident Tom Bauer's romance with garlic grew out of his love of food. He had prepared a dish known as Skordalia, a garlic dip, along with a loaf of dark bread for us to munch on during the interview, a practice that I would heartily urge everyone to follow, especially when entertaining visiting writers. The recipe will come at the end of the story, and be assured that it is worth the wait.
Tom used to work in a restaurant where his first chef/teacher put garlic in everything. The chef explained that garlic is like MSG, a subtle flavor enhancer, which can be added, in very small quantities, even to pies and puddings.
He has taken this teaching to heart and puts garlic in nearly everything that he makes. It was only natural that he would move from eating and preparing dishes with garlic to the growing of it.
"My friend Bob Elk was an agricultural major at Washington State. He studied (Rudolph Steiner's) biodynamic agriculture. From there he went into studying organic farming. Through stumbling around he ran into people who knew about growing garlic and decided to make it an avocation. He's really a helping kind of guy. He taught dozens and dozens of people how to have a little plot of land, grow an agricultural product, and to ask a fair price for it." Tom says, with all seriousness, that one can grow an acre of garlic and make $10,000 a year. This wasn't the case until fairly recently. Several factors are involved. One is Bob Elk and the Washington farmers, who pioneered the way, proving that you could charge nearly double the price of traditional (in the United States) white garlic. They have succeeded because of the second factor, the superior taste and cooking characteristics of the Spanish Roja and other breeds of garlic. This taste, and the changing tastes of diners, have ensured that chefs, gourmet food shops, and others will buy the garlic, even at prices of $15 a pound or more.
Tom grows his garlic on a plot of land decidedly smaller than an acre. His plantation, in fact, is only about ten by fifty feet in the backyard of his home. When I was there, the green shoots were about eight inches high, with some variation between the varieties. He grows variations of the family ophio-rocambole, which are closely related to the wild garlic. They generally have a more robust and piquant flavor. His plot includes the Spanish Roja and several other varieties, including some from Siberia that he is experimenting with.
Though there is money to be made in the growing of garlic, and he sells to several area chefs and specialty shops, including Folgarelli's and Oryana, Tom is not in it for the money. Rather, he says, "I grow it as a way to gauge how effectively I'm meditating on the earth, because you have to do certain things: you have to fertilize, you have to weed. It's a way for me to stay in contact. I gauge the season by what the garlic is doing. I can look out the window and tell what time of year it is. When the seed tops come out -- that's exciting. You have to go out and pinch them off, because you want the garlic bulb to take all the energy. In the midsummer, you harvest, and that's fun. Usually a couple of friends come over and roast up some garlic, and then we'll braid a few. There's a little bit of a ritual to the growing of it."
Tom has taught fifteen or so people to grow garlic and at times wonders why they don't grow for more than personal use, and seems to be hoping that someone will. If you are that person, and even if you're one for whom a personal farm will be enough, Tom advises you to prepare a patch now. Choose an area that receives full or almost full sun. Get either alfalfa hay or manure, till it under, and then grow out the weeds until around the middle of October when you will till those under. You will have built up an organic and fertilizing base. Then you take bulbs of the variety of garlic you wish to grow, separate them into individual cloves, and place the cloves in the ground at six inch intervals, bottom side down. All that remains is to water them in. Some people mulch, but Tom says that this is only really necessary when there is a cold winter without ample snowcover. Tom's most important tip?
"I can't emphasize enough the need for organic matter in the growing of garlic because this soil is so sandy that only a few people that live in the outlying areas will have a valley that has any topsoil to speak of. It's hard to imagine putting in too much organic matter. You could easily put in two tons of alfalfa hay on an average field. In two months, that organic matter would be virtually absorbed by the soil."
As for manure, he recommends horse, cow, rabbit, or chicken in that order. Because our soil tends to be low in nitrogen, blood meal is highly recommended as well.
He says that there really isn't much of a magic to growing great garlic, just paying attention to the climate (garlic can and should be watered, by rain or the gardener, three to four times a week) and to the overall health of the garlic. Yellow tips can signal a nutritional problem or that the garlic is dry.
A short story, and then the recipe.
Tom used to indulge his love of food by visiting the restaurants in Greektown with his friend Bob Spinner who, like Tom, is a hammered dulcimer player.. "All of the Greek restaurants serve a dark, crusty bread with a garlic dip they call Skordalia. For years we'd go down there and hit all the clubs. We could never find out what was in it. We'd go home and we thought: "There must be yogurt in it", but we could never really get it. Finally one day we went into Stacy's Restaurant and it turned out that Julie Stacy had and gave us the recipe:
"Take one pound of potatoes, diced and boiled until soft. Pour out the water and leave them in the pan a couple of minutes to dry out. Meanwhile you've taken two tablespoons of chopped garlic and prepared that with a teaspoon of salt and a half a cup of olive oil The Greeks swear that you have to do this by hand, but I've done it with a blender and it works fine. You take the hot potatoes and dump them in the olive oil, salt, and garlic mixture, blend them up until it's smooth. Add a couple of teaspoons of lemon juice and then taste it, you might need a little more salt, a little more lemon juice. You want to get where it just kind of hangs on the bread. It's a very simple and economical dish. Even people who wouldn't think they would like garlic will like this."
For more information and a pleasurable read for anyone interested in horticulture, Tom recommends the book Growing Great Garlic by Ron Engelland (Source of the poem above). Click for more on the book.
For those who wish to survey the finest selection of garlic seeds (over 100), there is no better catalog than that published by Filaree Farms:
On the web at www.filareefarm.com
Write them at182 Conconully Hwy., Okanogan, WA 98840
(They have books too!)