The first time I baked a whole hand of garlic the most wonderful thing happened. It turned into toothpaste. Well, its texture was like toothpaste, even if its flavour wasn't: squeezed from its baked, teardrop tube it was soft, creamy, spreadable, sweet, pungent, aromatic, wonderful (especially on toasted crusty bread).
This discovery was quite a few years ago, and prior to that I had been slavishly chopping garlic and frying it for countless dishes from the cuisines of the world: French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Indian, Thai, Lebanese and many others. (I drew the line at Skordalia, the Greek potato and raw garlic dip. I'm a cooked garlic boy.)
That baked hand of garlic was the beginning of my love affair with garlic. Until then we were just good friends! Even more recently I've had a go at growing garlic, and at this stage, as gardener and plant, we're still just getting to know one another. Just good friends, not lovers yet. Here's the story of what I've discovered so far.
Shop-bought garlic, this attractive purple-tinged person is from Argentina. It's pretty good as garlic goes, but sometimes the stuff sold here is very ordinary. By common agreement no-one likes the bleached white Chinese garlic for all sorts of reasons: "It's bland in flavour, and dodgy chemicals are used to bleach it white" are the two gripes you most often hear. Local laws say that the country of origin must be displayed on all foods sold here, and in the last few months I've bought garlic from Australia, California, Chile, Mexico and Argentina. All are OK, perhaps the Argentinian is my favourite, but I like Astor Piazzola's tango music and maybe I'm just prejudiced in its favour.
This green and pleasant scene is last year's garlic crop struggling for survival amongst very productive poppies and swarms of eager lettuce. Perhaps 'crop' is a bit grandiose a term for the four cloves I popped into the soil on a whim in May last year. But presuming that the plural of 'food plant' is 'crop', this is it. It was just shop-bought garlic and so the cost of the experiment was about a dollar.
As things turned out I wanted to create a potager garden in the spot where the garlic stood, and when I pulled out all the poppies and lettuce in November last year the garlic was still green-leafed but it was scrappy and unimpressive, one plant flopped over once its lettuce support was pulled away. (I've since learned that garlic likes ground to itself, so crowding it in like that was a dopey thing to do). And so, as they looked a bit ordinary, I harvested them early. The bulbs were under-developed but after drying them under the eaves of the shed they provided such a surprisingly pungent, garlicky flavour when I cooked with them that I decided: "Right, next year I'm getting serious about garlic!" And so this is the story so far this year...
Step 1: find garlic specialist and order 'proper' garlic. The mob I found online was Garlic Farm Sales (in Victoria). After an email enquiry from me, to which they miraculously replied (when does that happen online anymore?) I discovered that 'probably' the best garlic for Sydney's climate was Printanor. And so ended my first lesson. Many garlic varieties are available ('softneck' and 'hardneck' the main two categories) and with so many different climate types on this planet, horticultural match-making is very important – ie, you need the right garlic variety for your climate zone. To be fair to them, Garlic Farm Sales recommended I try a couple of different varieties, but with space limited here in Amateur Land and the cost of their garlic quite expensive, I'll be trying the different varieties one year at a time. I just stuck to their recommendation, Printanor.
I love mail-order gardening! Toss the packaging away, keep the instructions, take photo of garlic for blog. Done. That's the minimum order, and it's too much. I've given two hands away to a wonderful work colleague, Geoffrey, expert horticulturist and patient advisor for all my stupid queries. Besides, he gave me the zinnias last year and I'm in such debt to him that this garlic is no more than a token part-repayment.
Never did I imagine posting a photo of an invoice in my blog, but $32.90 for six hands of garlic isn't cheap. Almost didn't order it, but if it all works out OK I'll save some cloves for the next crop (I told myself).
Pictured here is some of the garlic planted the day I received the package in April. The idea is to try growing the garlic by three methods, and see which works best.
1. Plant in mid autumn (ie, April) without any prior chilling.
2. Plant in late autumn (mid-May) after chilling cloves in the fridge for 4 weeks.
3. Plant on the shortest day of the year (June 21) after 9 weeks in the fridge.
My handy info sheet says the early planted garlic should be slower to sprout but will probably produce the biggest bulbs in the end. The later-planted garlic will be faster to sprout but the bulbs could be smaller. We'll see.
The 'unchilled' garlic sprouted fairly quickly, within two weeks. Of the six bulbs planted, four have come up well. One (pictured below) is a weird curly sprout and other has done nothing.
Here's Mr Weird Curly Sprout. Couldn't resist finding out what's wrong, and the whole top half of the clove is soft and mucky. So I've replaced this and the other non-performing clove with a couple of spare 'non-chilled' cloves I kept aside for such an eventuality. Maybe Mr Curly Sprout became soft due to the above-average April rains we've had? Whatever, he's out of contention.
Meanwhile, in the crisper section of the fridge, the other cloves enjoy their artificial winter.
Last weekend (in mid-May) the second row of garlic went in. These are the cloves which have spent four weeks in the fridge. Maybe at this stage I could include a few growing tips from the Garlic Farm Sales brochure, as I am relying on this for what I'm doing here. Their tips run to a detailed whole page full of advice, but here's the basics:
• As for planting depths and spacings, they say plant them one to two inches deep (ie, 25mm-50mm) with the blunt ends down, pointy ends up. Cloves should be spaced 10cm apart, and rows of plants spaced 30cm apart.
• Soil should be well-drained, but the good news is that garlic isn't fussy about the type of soil it's in. However, it's good to add plenty of organic matter to the soil (ie, compost) prior to planting, along with some well-aged manure (here in Australia cow manure or Dynamic Lifter, which is chicken poo are the easiest to access). However, it's advisable to have the manure deeper down in the soil under the garlic cloves, rather than mixed into the soil and touching the garlic cloves.
• Garlic needs full sun to grow well, so that means at least six hours of sunshine beaming directly own on plants, preferably more. Once plants are up and growing they enjoy being watered but don't like being water-logged.
• Garlic plants also like occasional extra feeds. I plan to sprinkle little lines of manure along the rows every month.
• Garlic doesn't like weeds so you need to keep the area well weeded.
• Harvesting happens when the top half of the plant has become dried and brown (that should be late spring or early summer, say late November or early December here in Sydney). However, harvesting varies a bit depending on the variety of garlic grown. There are two main types, softneck garlic and hardneck garlic, and harvesting signs and times do vary, depending on what type you're growing. However, a dying back of the top of the plant generally means you're getting into the harvest zone, no matter what you're growing.
After harvesting you'll need to hang up your garlic in a dry, airy place for three to five weeks, until the outer skin is crinkly and dry.
• So those are the garlic basics as best as I can summarise them, but a visit to the website at Garlic Farm Sales is probably more useful than reading my blog. (And PS: no I have nothing to do with this company. I paid through the nose for their product and I'm yet to find out whether it's any good. But they have been nice to deal with so far.)
But before I sign off on my garlicky musings, here's yet another kitchen gadget for those who share my kitchen gadget problem. And this one I didn't even ask for, buy or order. It came with the order, as a bonus item.
Made from silicon, this is a garlic peeler.
The idea is that you put a single clove inside the silicon tube (which has little ribs on the inside) then roll it forward and backwards once or twice, and the outer skin on the clove slips off.
The initial roadtest was brilliant. All three done in a flash. This wonderful success rate kept up with that nicely dried hand of garlic, but then when I bought the next hand of garlic it wasn't so well dried, and the success rate went down to 50:50, or hit and miss, if you like.
However, as I paid nothing for this cute gadget, and as the extreme or larger recipes I cook might occasionally call for "12 cloves of garlic, peeled" this little orange sliver of silicon now has its spot in a drawer where I suspect it will spend many weeks or months unused, until called upon to come to the rescue of a tedious task.
Alas, this has turned into something of an epic version of garlicky musings, but this wonderful little bulb does deserve serious attention! From my gardener's perspective I know that garlic really does prefer to be grown in a cooler climate than mine, and definitely a less humid one. That's why the garlic mail-order specialists are 1000km further south, in Victoria.
However, people grow garlic successfully in all sorts of climates much warmer than mine, and therefore I should be able to grow it here in temperate Sydney as well. I'm sure that as the whole story of this little garlic experiment unfolds I make a few more postings on progress, so please forgive me for blathering on so much here, at the beginning of the little adventure.