The Hard Way

Hardneck garlic isn't soft on flavor

I never thought I’d have a strong opinion on garlic. I’m not talking about choosing sides on the pungent bulb’s famous odor and taste—though it is one of the saviors of the piquancy-deficient standard American diet.

Nor do I wade in the controversy over whether garlic is a vegetable or a spice. This is more esoteric than all that: in the all-star allium contest of

Sativum sativum vs. Sativum ophioscorodon, I’m all in for ophioscorodon.

Garlic is a smart little member of the allium family, which includes onions and leeks. The most common type of garlic that you see in stores is Sativum sativum, or softneck garlic, and this has nothing to do with flavor or ease of use. Softneck garlic keeps well and is easier to braid into garlic wreaths, if you’re into that sort of thing or fear vampires. But I haven’t bought that supermarket garlic in years. These days, I walk right past that bland, white-skinned stuff, whether conventionally farmed or organic, and I say, “Boo, boo on that softneck garlic.”

I don’t know when it started, but it might have been during one of those communal collegiate dinner parties, when I got the task of chopping up the garlic. Also called artichoke garlic, the softneck variety contains seemingly endless cloves that get smaller and smaller as they spiral down to the nonexistent core—all of them quite a pain to peel. It’s a special kind of punishment, and now that packaged, peeled garlic is so widely available in stores, why bother? Because there’s much more to garlic.

Hardneck garlic, Sativum ophioscorodon, is like the heirloom tomato of garlic, the free-range chicken of garlic (which might get your cooking juices going—just add Sonoma Coast Chardonnay). Hardneck garlic is the Mac, not the PC. Hardneck garlic has evocative names like Music, Asian Tempest, China Stripe, German Porcelain and Inchelium Red. Hardneck may be spicier, more aromatic, more buttery, or any combination thereof—and it’s easier to peel. But like most things that I like, it’s in short supply.

During a dry spell when I ran out of homegrown garlic, I found great garlic at the Santa Rosa Farmers Market. I can’t recall, but it may well have been at the Bernier Farms stand—few farmstands have garlic that looks so good, and with such variety. At Catelli’s restaurant in Geyserville, chef and owner Domenica Catelli is also a fan of farmer Yael Bernier’s garlic.

“She’s known for growing so many types of garlic,” Catelli says. “Some are easier to peel, or there’s a different type of sweetness or spiciness.” Catelli uses Bernier garlic for seasonal specials but relies on pre-peeled organic garlic grown in the Central Valley by Christopher Ranch for her base sauce, and because the restaurant runs on garlic.

“When somebody comes to the restaurant and wants something without garlic,” says Catelli, “it’s always a bit challenging—the menu shrinks dramatically.”

Based in Dry Creek and Alexander Valley, Bernier Farms also sells “seed garlic” on its website. Instead of planting a tiny seed, the usual way that you get more garlic the next season is to break up a bulb into cloves and, instead of shaving them with a razor to get those extra-thin slices that liquefy in the pan with just a little oil, à la Goodfellas, stick them butt-end-down in the soil, and water them or wait for rain.

Now is the time to do it, according to Cody Rich, assistant sales manager at Harmony Farm Supply & Nursery. Although “fortune favors the bold,” Rich says of the unusually warm Decembers we’ve had lately, which allowed for successful late planting of garlic, it’s best done before the end of November. Harmony offers both softneck and hardneck seed garlic, from $5.89 to $20.49 per pound, but it’s a “chicken and eggs” type of question as to why the more widely available—and thus cheaper—softneck garlic is the more popular buy. Just make sure to cure the garlic in a dark, dry location after digging it up in May or June—and don’t wash it.

My philosophy is to garden for dollars in a different way. Pesto is one of the more expensive sauces at retail, so by planting garlic in the fall, and basil in the spring, if I’m lucky I’ve got most of the ingredients in abundance at exactly the right time. Luckier still when I’ve got a family member who diligently gathers and dries walnuts later in the fall—while most pesto calls for expensive pine nuts, remember, we’re both cheaping out and going local here, and walnuts do the fatty nut trick just fine. As for the olive oil to blend it all together, well, you can plant those, too, but you’ll have to wait a bit longer for trees to mature.