For the love of garlic

  • Ari LeVaux

 

Garlic: I can't live without it. I've been growing this onion relative since the mid-1990s and have learned that good garlic is the product of both nature and nurture - good genes and good cultivation.  Now is the best time to buy garlic for planting because it was just harvested in August, and the best stuff usually sells out fast.

Once you have a stash of planting garlic, all you have to do is treat it right. In the case of garlic black-belt holder Ron Engeland, this means caring for your garlic "with the dedication of a champion chess player, and the fervent sincerity of a young priest." His book, Growing Great Garlic, is the bible for those of us who think all meals improve by adding garlic.

My favorite strain to grow is Romanian Red. The cloves are larger than the entire some heads of some garlic, and they peel like bananas. I found this delectable strain at the Tonasket Barter Faire in Washington's Okanogan Valley. One day, after sampling a variety of homemade wines, I turned around to see a guy standing beside a pickup. In the back of his truck was a basket of the best-looking garlic I'd ever seen, and for about $50 I bought enough to get my patch going. The seller was legendary garlic-grower David Ronniger; the strain was Romanian Red.

Alas, after more than a decade of saving and replanting this garlic seed, I made a mathematical error last fall. It resulted in too little garlic being planted, which became too little garlic harvested this summer, which left me without enough to both eat and plant for the coming year.

Thus, after years of self-sufficiency, I'm back in the market for garlic. It feels like being single again after a long relationship; the farmers market is like a dive bar where I feverishly search for a new love. As I scan the offerings, preparing to actually pay for it, I can't stop comparing those bulbs to my beloved Romanian Red. It's sad, but in a way, it's kind of exciting, too. As I began exploring the markets and doing online research, I got intrigued about some new varieties. In my search, I've usually had to look beyond the fact that most everything for sale is of the minus rather than plus size. I focus instead on the underlying genetics and assume I can grow it bigger.

I'm only interested in the flowering or so-called "hardneck" varieties. I prefer bulbs that have few rather than many cloves because it means bigger cloves. Softneck varieties are popular with growers because they keep better. But hardneck garlic keeps long enough for me. It's easier to peel, the bulbs are symmetrically shaped, and the cloves tend to be bigger.

The best candidate I've found so far at farmers market has been a hardneck called Russian Red. Although the bulbs are small, the heads are symmetrical and contain three to five cloves each. I took a few back to the lab, where I confirmed what I suspected: The beautiful purple peels pulled off easily, and the flavor met my standards. I bought a sack for planting.

Meanwhile, I found a family-run garlic farm in Wisconsin online at wegrowgarlic.com. For a lot more money than I spent at the Barter Faire, I bought five heads each of Russian Inferno, Turkish Giant, Chinese Red and White, Vostani, Zemo, Pskem and Metechi.

Once you find the garlic seed you want, you need to figure out how much to buy. Thanks to the remnants of high school algebra that I somehow retained, I was able to pull off what will probably go down as my crowning achievement in the field of mathematics: I derived an equation to figure out how much garlic to plant. Here it is: X = Z / (Y - 1).  X is the number of bulbs you need to plant, Y is the average number of cloves per bulb of the strain you're planting (with Romanian Red, Y = 5). And Z is the number of bulbs you want to eat in a year. In my case, Z = 365, or one garlic bulb per day. I have a big garden, after all.

Solving the equation with my variables, X = 91 bulbs worth of Romanian Red that need be planted for a year's supply of garlic, with enough leftover to plant.

The fact that I, of all people, was able to derive such a rocket-science-level equation, much less solve it, is testament to what a garlic snob can muster when good eating depends on it.

Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes about gardening, farming and food politics from Placitas, New Mexico.

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