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Flavor 19: Garlic

September 28, 2015
BY CARLA SEIDL

"Garlic can be hot or spicy," says Sarah Decker of Root Bottom Farm in Marshall, NC. "Or it can be hot AND spicy." In their 12-variety garlic sampler, she and husband Morgan sell varieties with names like Thai Fire, Sicilian Silver, and German Red.

"I like the heat, and I like the robust flavor that you can get while cooking," says Sarah. In contrast, the garlic you buy in the supermarket is milder, with a less complex flavor. As she puts it, it's "consumer-safe."

There are two general categories of garlic: hardneck and softneck. Hardnecks have an edible stalk, called a scape, growing through the center of the bulb. You can eat the scape raw or sautée it. "It's almost like a bean...a garlic bean," says Morgan.

Supermarket garlic is usually of the softneck type, which stores longer than hardneck and lacks the hardneck's defining scape. California Silverskin is the most common supermarket variety, and has extra good shelf life due to its tightly wrapped skins. Hardneck is more commonly found at farmers markets.

Garlic's health-promoting reputation is deserved: it has antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties as well as cardiovascular benefits. In addition, it's rich in trace minerals manganese and selenium, as well as a variety of other vitamins.

In her book Eating on the Wild Side, Jo Robinson recommends either eating garlic raw or letting it rest for 10 minutes after chopping or pressing before adding it to your cooking in order to reap maximum health benefits. While any kind of garlic is good for you, Robinson explains that hardneck garlic, being closer to wild garlic, may have retained more medicinal properties.

Before starting Root Bottom Farm four years ago, Morgan Decker farmed garlic in Vermont and Utah. Sarah was a photography professor and grew up on a small farm in Virginia where her dad hunted and raised animals and had a small garden. "I like eating food that I know the source of," she says.

The Deckers farm 5 1/2 acres of bottomland along a creek. Such flat land is rare in hilly Madison county. The property was formerly a tobacco farm, which the couple revitalized over a 2-year period with, among other efforts, 65 trips to the landfill.

The couple farms organically, spraying nothing, and not even using a tractor. They even plant by the moon -- a habit that comes from Sarah's father, and to which Morgan has agreed, though qualifying, "only if it works out." So far, it's always worked out.

Still, the lack of a true cold snap in this area can be challenging for garlic, especially hardnecks, and the Deckers have found it's best to leave some varieties to the folks in Maine and Minnesota. "This is kind of on the warmer side of the garlic growing spectrum," Morgan says, "so you have to choose the right varieties."

Normally, garlic undergoes a curing process, in which the paper skins become fully formed for storage and the flavor intensifies. The Deckers cure their garlic in the rafters of the old tobacco barn, but they also start to sell garlic as soon as they dig it up (in June or July, depending on the variety). Morgan says fresh garlic is juicier. He explains that chefs, especially, like it because freshly dug garlic's paper isn't fully formed, so they don't have to go to the trouble of peeling the skin off each clove.

Garlic's ability to store means the Deckers don't have to sell their garlic right away. Softneck garlic can be stored in a cold, dark, dry environment for 6 months, hardneck for 3 to 5. With the right conditions, they can last all winter in a cellar or fridge. "We like the longevity that root crops provide," says Sarah. The couple specializes in roots, and grows carrots, potatoes, and beets, in addition to garlic, but they also grow and sell other crops, including microgreens, berries, herbs, and flowers.

"We like to use everything," Sarah tells me. From leftover, small garlic bulbs not big enough to sell for seed or consumption, she started making an organic, herbed garlic butter, which is one of their main value-added products.

The Deckers want people not just to buy and eat their garlic cloves, but also plant them. They sell their garlic sampler in part to spread the varieties of garlic that do well here, and to keep the diversity of garlic strains alive.

Reading the descriptions on Root Bottom Farm's garlic sampler, I'm especially intrigued by their "Music" variety: "An aromatic, slightly spicy, incredibly flavorful garlic. Potent heat that is balanced by the spiciness. Good in mashed potatoes."

I will have to catch up with them again soon to try it out.

Find Root Bottom Farm at the West Asheville or Mars Hill tailgate markets, or visit them at rootbottomfarm.com.