Garlic: A Love Story

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chester aaron garlic farmer

Just before I was born, my parents and grandparents were forced to flee Iran, a land of people who proudly bear the weight of the 2,500-year-old legacy of the great Persian empire on their shoulders—sometimes as a blessing, sometimes a curse. Though I was born and raised in California, I grew up with a strong sense of this culture and its distinguishing characteristics—limitless generosity, a canny sense of humor, and acute hypochondria.

Ours is a culture caught somewhere between East and West, so instead of turning to the medicine cabinet every time we face an ailment, we first turn to the pantry. Growing up, one food was mentioned time and time again by my family for its infinite healing powers. It could cure infections, reduce blood pressure, prevent cancer, lower cholesterol, wake you up, put you to sleep, and everything in between.

Garlic. Specifically, raw or pickled garlic.

As a child, garlic wasn’t exactly my favorite food. The idea of eating raw garlic to heal a cold brought tears to my eyes, and I flinched at the torshi, or seven-year pickled garlic, my grandmother is known for canning each summer. My young palate couldn’t handle the heat and acid involved in these forms of the bulb, and so I scoffed at my parents’ claims and ignored them for as long as I could.

Then I became a cook.

Clove at first site

So many cooks—even professional ones—take garlic for granted. Few are familiar with all the delights of fresh garlic, and fewer still know that it’s harvested just once a year. One of the tasks at my first kitchen job was to peel a dozen or so heads of garlic each morning for the other cooks. For months, the task would take me half an hour or more, as I carefully peeled away each clove’s papery shell and, in the winter, searched for a germ to remove. In the depths of winter, garlic would disappear from the menu altogether and be replaced by the rumor of next year’s bulbs—green garlic—which we sliced and used in place of mature heads.

One late spring day during that first year, fresh garlic’s extraordinary qualities were revealed to me: one of our farmers had made a special trip to deliver his first mature bulbs of the season—big white heads with long green tops and roots still warm with midday dirt. The other cooks were all abuzz, and the evening’s menu was changed at the last moment to feature the fresh garlic.

I didn’t quite understand the fuss until the next morning, when I set out to peel the day’s cloves. As I grabbed the bulbs from the farm box I was astonished at how heavy and robust they were. I became mesmerized by the sweet, subtle scent they gave off. To call this a moment of enlightenment would not be hyperbole: I’d never before seen cloves like this—juicy pearls that practically peeled themselves, they barely resembled their sad, cured cousins I’d mistaken as the real thing my whole life. Since the bulbs hadn’t yet been dried, the skin was moist and pliable. Simply rubbing the cloves lightly between my thumb and forefinger was enough to release them from their shells. The morning task I had grown to dread became one of my favorite parts of the day, as I marveled at the beauty of the mild, plump cloves and considered what wonderful torshi they might make.

Eventually, I learned that the restaurant’s then-chef, Christopher Lee, is so obsessed with garlic that it’s the only thing he grows in his home garden. In the summer, garlic appeared on the menu in every form imaginable—from roasted whole young heads in a bowl of lightly scented garlic broth, to spit-roasted leg of lamb pierced with an infinite number of holes, each stuffed with a sliver of garlic, and of course, aioli so exquisite I could have (and did) eat it by the spoonful.

I still work for him, though now in the Eccolo kitchen. When I mentioned to Chris that I wanted to write about garlic, he referred me to Chester Aaron as its presiding authority.

The maestro of garlic

A couple of phone calls later, I find myself at a dusty, solar-powered cabin in Occidental, being fed an assortment of garlic snacks by Aaron, a gregarious, mustachioed 85-year-old with a noteworthy nose and an agility that makes me doubt his age. Before I have a chance to sit down, he’s brought me some of his garlic “elixir,” a puree of raw garlic and olive oil that he spreads on virtually everything, and, yes, a batch of five-year-old torshi he’d made with a Persian friend. Aaron himself prefers to snack on raw garlic cloves. Every so often, I catch him slipping one into his mouth, and he apologizes like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, grinning with a shrug as if to ask, “Well, what do you expect?”

Aaron grows 93 varieties of garlic, which can be divided into two main types—hard neck and soft neck. Hard-neck garlic has a stalk that comes up from the center called a scape. If left on the plant, eventually the scape would begin to suck vital nutrients from the growing bulb, leading to a smaller, less healthy head of garlic in the summer. When the scape begins to curl in spring, Aaron snaps it off. He used to throw away the scapes, but on a trip to Italy, Aaron saw farmers cooking with them and learned about one of the most delightful peasant foods in Italian cuisine. With a flavor milder than mature garlic, scapes can be eaten raw, cooked into soups or pasta, or sautéed and served on bruschetta with parmesan.

Though the scape can be delicious, hard-neck garlic isn’t as popular with farmers because it’s a less reliable plant that requires more attention and can’t be stored as long as soft neck. Most local farmers choose to grow Chinese varieties of soft-neck garlic that have been renamed California Early and California Late.

Aaron treats each of his garlic varieties with love, and has identified all of their unique characteristics from shape and color to taste, which vary much more than you might think. During his tenure as reigning garlic expert, Aaron has taught many dubious chefs about the distinct characteristics of various types, from the earthy sweetness of Creole Red to the hot, lingering flavor of Russian Sanctuary. When skeptics say that all garlic tastes the same, Aaron counters with, “Are all grapes the same? Wines? Is an apple just an apple?” It’s true—to assume that all varieties of a single crop are indistinguishable is foolish and closed-minded. It’s just that most of us never consider the vast array of garlic cultivars.

The bulb in the China shop

The most astonishing thing I learn from Aaron is that though Gilroy bills itself as the “Garlic Capital of the World,” that title right-fully belongs to China, which grows 95% of the world’s garlic. Gilroy did once supply the United States with two-thirds of our garlic, but about eight years ago, nearly all of the city’s bulbs were destroyed by heavy rains. U.S. demand for garlic didn’t subside, however, and so China stepped in to fill the supply gap. Much of the garlic now sold as Gilroy-grown is actually from abroad.

Unfortunately, according to Aaron, Chinese crops are treated with unlimited doses of pesticide and herbicide. Since only 1 to 3 percent of what comes across U.S. borders is actually inspected, on several occasions, Aaron has sent “Organic” imported garlic he’s bought in grocery stores to have it tested. He says that every time, the garlic has been laden with high levels of contaminants.

To avoid buying garlic you can’t be certain about—even “California Organic” garlic I’ve tried to buy for the restaurant has turned out to be grown in Mexico—Aaron suggests growing your own or buying from farmers markets. Local farms with full, beautiful bulbs at the market throughout the summer include Riverdog, Terra Firma, Catalan, Full Belly, Avalos, Eatwell, and Knoll.

Aaron’s passion of 20-plus years—he also writes prolifically about garlic—was first ignited by his father, a Russian immigrant who grew varieties of the plant from his native land in the yard of their Pennsylvania home. Aaron starts to recount stories of his father giving him garlic to cure earaches and toothaches, and I realize we could swap stories on the purported healing qualities of the herb until sunset. As he tells me about allicin, the anti-fungal, antibacterial compound found in raw garlic, my lifelong skepticism begins to ebb. In truth, all I have to do is take a good look at Aaron himself, as spry as can be—he doesn’t even wear glasses!—to recognize that his favorite food probably has something to do with his well-being.

Though I’m not sure I’ll ever get to a point when raw garlic cloves sound like the perfect snack, I have grown to love eating and making pickles of all kinds. This year, I plan to buy some of Aaron’s Persian Star variety and make some torshi for my family, both to arouse in their hearts and mouths the memories of the land they had to leave behind—and to cure any minor ailments they might have.

Getting a head Chester Aaron’s advice on how to grow your own garlic

Garlic should be planted about a month before the first freeze—in the Bay Area, that means late October or early November. Aaron recommends planting in raised beds at least 2 feet high. The soil bed, which he fortifies with chicken manure and compost, should be moist but not soaking wet. Next, cover the plot with newspaper, gently wet the sheets, and punch holes about 2 inches deep and 5 inches apart. Choose large, healthy cloves with no mushy spots or bruising to plant. Insert them base down, tip up. Cover the cloves with soil without compressing them further into the ground, and lay mulch—Aaron uses rice straw—over the dirt to protect the bed from harsh weather. In the spring, you can harvest immature (green) garlic to cook with. Once summer hits and nearly half of the leaves are brown, the garlic is ready to harvest. The best way to harvest is with a shovel—pulling the bulbs may damage the neck and prevent you from hanging the garlic. Once the bulbs have been harvested, loosen the dirt gently by hand. Freshly pulled bulbs are heavy with water weight that diminishes flavor and heat. Unless you are making a special dish that focuses on the ethereal lightness of new garlic, it’s best to hang the bulbs, with their tops on, for two to three weeks. Choose a cool, dry place for curing, as the sun will start to deteriorate the bulb. In that time, they’ll lose about one-third of their weight, and the flavor will intensify. After hanging, trim the tops of the garlic 1 to 2 inches above the head of the bulb Take care not to clean the bulb too much—the more skin covers you leave on, the longer the bulb will last.

Samin Nosrat is sous chef at Berkeley’s Eccolo Restaurant and a freelance writer. Her blog, Ciao Samin, can be found at ciaosamin.blogspot.com.

Photo of Chester Aaron and garlic by Winni Wintermeyer.