Garlic is a crop that needs to be cured. But why “cure” something if it isn’t sick, especially something like garlic which is, itself, widely touted as a cure for everything from vampire infestations to heart disease?
To cure means to heal. The word “heal” come to us from the Anglo-Saxon word hal, meaning whole. As our language developed it was natural for the word “cure”, which comes to English from the Latin word curare, for caring, to also begin to mean “make whole.” “Caring for” and “keeping whole,” eventually become synonymous with preserving. Thus, even a ham is said to be “cured” after it has been kept from decomposing by being bathed in brine and spices, though its only “illness” was to have once been the leg on a swine. Curing a head of garlic is not nearly as violent a process as “curing” the leg from a pig.
When garlic plants begin to yellow and we observe that the bulbs are swollen we stop watering the crop. At this point the garlic’s roots are beginning to shrivel under ground and any excess water would only invite rot, spoiling the bulb. Then we lift the bulbs and break the dirt clods from the roots. We lay the garlic on the ground in rows to finish drying. We are careful to protect the crop from sunburn by layering the garlic so the bulbs are tucked under the withered leaves of the garlic plants preceding them in the row. The effect is like a thatched windrow.
As the garlic cures any residual sugars are drawn from the wilting leaves into the cloves, and this helps them keep. Remember, unlike a pig that’s been cured of its life, properly cured garlic is a complete living organism, or rather bunch of organisms, since each clove in the cluster is a clone of the mother plant. When the papery husk that envelopes and protects the head of garlic dries we clip the bulbs from their stalks. We will store the dried garlic inside the shade of a dark barn in bulb totes that allow the free passage of air so that there’s no condensation of trapped moisture to provoke rot. In late October we’ll break apart the garlic bulbs we’ve saved for next year’s crop and plant the cloves.
“Curing” garlic isn’t cheap; all that planting, irrigating, weeding, lifting, windrowing, clipping, and packaging takes time and labor– rent and wages, plus taxes and diesel fuel, of course. So, if the farm is going to stay in business, it’s important to get the highest price possible for our crop. In recent years garlic has presented special challenges on both on the production end and on the retail side of the agricultural equation. China has been exporting massive amounts of garlic to the United States at very “competitive” prices. It helps that the cost of Chinese farm labor, when compared to US wage standards, is practically free. It also helps the Chinese producers that garlic, once cured, can be easily held in storage for a long time, allowing the crop to be shipped cheaply to US markets on a “slow boat from China.” Over here, consumers don’t often know where their food comes from, and many of them don’t care; price is almost all that counts.
Time also counts. America is the land where time IS money, and many consumers don’t feel like they have the time left in their lives to peel garlic. Americans are more sophisticated about food than they ever have been before, and garlic is more popular than ever, so much of America’s increased demand for garlic is for convenient, “value added” products like peeled garlic, prepared garlic pastes, dried garlic flakes, and garlic salt. As a small-scale farmer, I can hardly afford to cure my garlic crop, to say nothing of processing it, so I have devised other strategies to grow and market garlic.
First of all, we sell much of our crop as “green garlic.” In the fall, we plant the cloves densely together so that they grow thick. For lack of root space this garlic wouldn’t thrive if we left it in the ground to mature, but we harvest it young and tender, at a scallion stage. Being a fresh, green crop that is perishable, we face no competition in the local marketplace from the Chinese. Green garlic is flavorful but mild and can be used in many applications where cured garlic might make too forceful an impression on the palate. And I like that too, but what I really like is that green garlic is ready in early March, just when our farm has the least to harvest and I need all the sales I can get.
Secondly, every fall we plant some garlic two rows per forty-inch bed at a rate of one clove per every six inches. This garlic will fatten nicely and form a plump bulb. In the past we would have let this garlic fully mature and then we would have gone through the whole curing process. One problem we used to have is that during the curing process we would sometimes get a visit from the night time coastal fog rolling in over the fields. The garlic’s papery husk get damp in the fog and then turn gray, rather than remain the bone-white that the consumer appreciates, making it even harder to sell. Nowadays, we sell our full-sized garlic when it’s fresh. True, without curing, fresh garlic won’t keep, but we’re selling the garlic to people who are cooking with it, not storing it, and they appreciate the bright flavor and the juiciness that fresh garlic has.
Lastly, we often grow a small amount of so-called “snake garlic,” or Allium sativum ophioscorodon.” (Ophioskorodon is Greek for serpent.) A Muslim story has the first garlic sprouting from a print the Devil’s left cloven hoof left in the dust as he followed Adam and Eve out of the Garden, but this garlic earned its name, not because of any satanic relationship or culpability in the temptation of Eve but because the plant sends up a flower stalk that curls like snake. The flower bud is called a “scape,” and it is tender, and mildly flavored of garlic. Due to their unusual shape, garlic scapes make great vegetables for tempura. The scape harvest gives our farm an unusual crop to offer our customers and helps us to attract and maintain our restaurant clients. The scape harvest also comes a few weeks earlier that the fresh garlic harvest, which, again, helps even out cash flow. Once the snake garlic bulbs swell, they are sharp flavored and delicious. Because snake garlic is expensive and sometimes hard to find we’ll save the best heads of our own crop and cure them so that they store well and are available for us to plant back in the fall for our next year’s crop.
copyright 2011 Andy Griffin