Garlic was among the first plants I learned to recognize here. It is unmistakable: while the white bulb that most of us know as garlic lies buried under the ground, its thick white stalk and slender green leaves reach three feet in the air when fully grown. A tapered green tube (the scape) shoots up from the center of each plant, falling into snakelike loops and coiling in on itself near the end.
Worrill and I harvested (that is, cut off with a scissors) the scapes from the farm’s 400 garlic plants a couple of weeks ago. Elizabeth pureed them with basil, olive oil, and walnuts into pesto, and ground them up with chickpeas, tahini, and lemon juice into hummus. She diced and sauteed them for use in pastas and salads, and brought them to a local pizza maker so he could incorporate them into his new seasonal, locally sourced pies.
Once the scapes have been cut, all the energy of the plant goes into increasing the size of the bulb. Around the longest day of the year, when the plant’s leaves have begun to wither and turn brown, it’s time to pull the bulbs from the ground. Claire (a new intern) and I undertook this task one morning last week. We wrapped our fists around each stalk, below where the leaves begin, and pulled upwards, hard. The ground bulges, quavers, and then peels back as the bulb erupts from the earth in a triumphant, redolent oomph.
Moist, fertile soil is not easy to come by in this part of Vermont, where hard clay underlies just about everything, so Claire and I carefully brushed the clods of earth that clung to each bulb back into the bed before placing it in a wheelbarrow for transport to the drying room. There, we laid out the bulbs on tables with tops made of wire mesh, where they will desiccate and await either a return to the ground or a trip to the kitchen.
One hundred and fifty of the largest bulbs will be split into cloves in the late fall and replanted to become next year’s crop. With each bulb holding between 5 and 7 cloves, that’s about 900 garlic plants shooting up next spring!
I take a few of the bulbs back to the kitchen to use fresh. I cut off the long stalk and the coarse hairs that cushion the bottom. The crisp, papery skin covering the bulb crackles as I remove it, and I discover that the cloves of a fresh head of garlic cling to one another much more tightly than do those of the heads I’ve always bought at the grocery store. Wedging a paring knife between them eases them apart. I’m surprised to find that the skin enrobing each clove is not the same papery thin wisps I’m used to, but rather opaque, moist, and leathery. The taste, too, is an epiphany: especially pungent, juicy, with an audible snap to it.
I used these first cloves to make a puree of white beans, fresh garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and handfuls of just-picked parsley and basil, mixed with a little salt, black pepper, and cayenne. We mounded it on rosemary foccacia at dinner, then spread it on open-faced cheese and tomato sandwiches that we broiled in the oven for lunch the next day.
Suddenly, 400 bulbs of garlic doesn’t seem like nearly enough for a year’s supply!