Editor’s note: A version of this piece originally appeared on Sow True Seeds’ blog. Find out more about Sow True at the end of the piece.
There are more than 400 members of the genus allium: Onions, shallots, leeks and everyone’s favorite, garlic.
Did you know garlic was so prized in ancient Egypt that it was used as currency? Clay models of garlic bulbs were found in the tomb of Tutankhamen.
The word garlic comes from the Old English garleac, meaning spear leek. For more than 6,000 years, this native of Central Asia has been a staple in Mediterranean cuisine and used as a seasoning in Asia, Africa, and Europe.
The most commonly cultivated form of garlic is allium sativum, which has two sub-varieties: Softneck garlic and hardneck garlic.
What’s the difference between softneck and hardneck garlic?
Softneck (allium sativum var. sativum)
This is the one with which you are probably most familiar. It’s found in supermarkets because it is better suited to industrial farming and stores longer (6 to 12 months with proper cool dry conditions). Softnecks have white papery skin and an abundance of cloves, often forming several layers around a central core. The flexible stalk also allows softneck garlic to be formed into garlic braids. Sow True Seed carries three types of softnecks currently available for the 2015 planting season:
- California Early Organic – An early-maturing garlic suitable for most climates. Mild, rich garlic flavor without the bite. 12-16 cloves per bulb. Good for the beginning grower.
- Inchelium Organic – Has a robust flavor, rich with a hint of heat. The bulbs reach 3” across; and have 12-20 cloves. The outer bulb wrappers are thick and protect the bulb, helping it stores well for 6-7 months. It overwinters well.
Hardneck (allium sativum var. ophioscorodon)
The Latin name for the hardneck variety is ophioscorodon. This may comes from the Greek word ophis — meaning “snake,” after its coiling scape stalk. On top of this scape grow little bulbs (bubils) which look a bit like flowers but are not.
Hardneck have fewer and larger cloves than softnecks with little or no outer bulb wrapper. They don’t last as long without that papery protection but with proper cool and dry storage can still go 4 to 6 months. We have four types of hardneck currently available for 2015 planting:
- German White – An early-to-mid summer porcelain variety with a distinct, moderately spicy flavor. 6-8 plump, easy-to-peel cloves. Bulbs between 2 and 2 1/2” wide. Yummy for roasting. It stores well into the cold winter months.
- German Red – This lovely hardneck garlic has a bold, full-bodied true “garlic” flavor. Consistent producer of large bulbs with with fat cloves and red streaked inner wrappers.
- Chesnok Red – This purpleskin delight is beautiful to behold and just as flavorful! It is the sweetest of all the garlics when roasted. A true mild hardneck. 50 to 60 cloves per pound. 25 to 30 cloves per half pound.
- Music – A very cold hardy, slightly spicy, incredibly flavorful garlic. Huge, easy-to-peel cloves per bulb with a shiny-white sheath and pink-tinged clove skins. 20-30 cloves per lb.
- Elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum), is an allium that is not a true garlic, but a garlic-y sister to the leek.
Folklore is pungent with garlic references. Greek athletes ate handfuls of it before competition, as did Greek soldiers before going into battle. Ancient Koreans ate pickled garlic before passing through a mountain path, believing that tigers disliked it. Practitioners of Auryvedic medicine held garlic in high regard as an aphrodisiac. Medieval midwives hung garlic cloves in birthing rooms to keep evil spirits away. Of course we know it repels all manner of bad guys – werewolves, devils and especially vampires. To ward off vampires, the superstitions recommend wearing it, hanging it in windows, or rubbing it on chimneys and keyholes. But they do not say which type is more effective, so perhaps you might try a sampler pack?
Garlic has been used medicinally for almost as long as it has been cultivated. Monks prescribed it against plague in the Middle Ages. Hippocrates used garlic vapors to treat cancer. Poultices were made from garlic during World War 2 as an inexpensive, and apparently effective replacement for scarce antibiotics.
Garlic was found in ethnic dishes cooked in American working-class neighborhoods from the early days, but it was considered vulgar by the upper classes until about the 1930s. It was known as Bronx vanilla, halitosis, and Italian perfume.
Today as a nation we consume more than 250 million pounds of garlic annually. Here’s a simple yet sublime recipe to celebrate that fact.
Easy Garlic Aioli
Aioli is a traditional Provençal sauce for dipping bread, artichokes or just about anything. It’s usually a little more complicated, starting with olive oil and eggs, but this recipe from Allrecipes.com is super quick and still delicious.
- 3/4 cup mayonnaise
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Mix mayonnaise, garlic, lemon juice, salt, and pepper in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before serving.
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