The recipe calls for 'two cloves of garlic'. Any recipe! Two cloves, six cloves, one clove ... not one of them tell you how large those garlic cloves should be, or how fresh, or what kind of garlic.
All those details matter. Just now we have a garlic-laden fruit bowl with our homegrown garlic and a couple of garlic gifts from other gardens. Some of the garlic cloves are pea size. Others are as big as a (shelled) walnut, thus giving a considerable variation in the amount of garlic deliciousness of the resulting dish.
All the garlic in our fruit bowl is sweetish, as its been harvested in the last six weeks, though it's not as sweet as garlic that has been picked for less than a fortnight, so rich in many subtle flavours and lacking acridity that you can bake the bulbs whole then spread the contents on toast. Don't try this with elderly garlic, or your throat will be yelling 'arrk!'. I suspect that those dishes where lamb or chicken is baked on a bed of garlic cloves are supposed to be made with freshly picked garlic.
This is the time to plant garlic, especially if you have never tasted truly fresh garlic. Don't panic if you can't get a crop in this weekend - anytime to the end of March is fine in our climate, or even in early spring, though the bulbs may not be as large. Garlic is easy to grow as long as the plants get full sun and have well drained soil. You will also get the young leaves to eat stir fried or added to soups or stews or blended in houmous, or a hundred other places where you'd like both greenery and a mild garlic flavour.
Garlic plants also take up little room. Try poking cloves along the edge of flower beds if you don't have a convenient spot in the vegetable garden, or even under the rose bushes, where it is supposed to repel aphids, though our aphids seem to quite like garlic. Large amounts of Russian garlic (see below) grown in a carpet for several years under peach trees will prevent curly leaf, while a similar long and lavish planting will inhibit black spot. But a garlic plant or two under your bushes won't have much effect, if any.
Just make sure your garlic doesn't have any weed competition, and keep it watered, which probably won't be a problem this season. If your soil can't be classified as 'well fed' already, make it so while the garlic leaves are still growing strongly before winter.
The most important step is to buy garlic cloves that have been certified for planting. Don't just plant any old garlic you have lurking under the potatoes. Quite possibly it won't grow at all - much commercial garlic has been treated to stop it spouting. It just slowly rots and dies. If it does grow, you may find you have also planted some exotic disease from imported cloves.
Now separate each bulb into cloves, and plant them about 15cm apart with the pointed top upwards, and just below the surface of the soil. And wait. Garlic takes about eight months for the bulbs to grow, but in a cool year like this it can take 10 months. Pull it up when the leaves begin to brown - don't let them die off totally like onions. Treat the bulbs carefully, as at this stage they are soft (also delicious) and will bruise easily. Hang them up to dry or place on racks under cover for two to three weeks, then store on racks or shelves with good air circulation. Plaiting garlic is not as hard as you may think - if you can plait hair, plaiting garlic is a cinch.
The real joy - for avid gardeners and enthusiastic eaters, anyway - is in choosing which variety to plant. Just like tomatoes, different garlics have different flavours and strengths, and some also grow better in certain climates.
Australian White suits our cold winters and hot summers. It's a sort of 'cheese and salad sandwich' garlic, extremely good but everyday.
Monaro Purple is much more fun. Unlike Australian White it produces a flower stem, which can also be eaten when young, or let it grow to admire the giant ball of garlic flowers. Garlic flowers look spectacular in a vase, and are sometimes seen on Instagram, where the flower arrangers don't mention that after about two hours your room will begin to smell like a Marseilles navvy's armpit. Monaro Purple is also a 'rocambole' variety - the stem loops over itself in an attractive kind of twist, which straightens just as the garlic is ready to harvest. It has a sweet, non-acrid flavour - a magnificent garlic if you'd like to use a lot of it without getting 'garlic burn'.
An even more delicious garlic is 'Red Rocambole'. It has quite small bulbs with a gorgeous red mauve skin, and a strong sweet flavour. One small clove of Red Rocambole is more powerful than two large Australian Whites, and with more undertones of flavour too. (I am beginning to drool just thinking of it, slowly softening with chopped onion in olive oil...)
If you can get hold of Italian Late Garlic, or Italian White, grab them. They all cook to a gorgeous cream, with a smooth non pungent flavour, and are excellent keepers and great for plaiting. Italian Pink is just as delicious, but needs somewhat warmer winters than ours to get a good crop.
If you want an extremely strong but sweet garlic, go for 'Oriental Purple'. It has giant cloves, easy to peel, and an excellent flavour. Australian Red is also excellent in the Canberra region. It's a seriously powerful garlic when used raw, but becomes sweet and loses its strength when sautéed in olive oil or baked. It also looks fabulous, though dry growing conditions can mean the rich purple fades to a pale mauve, though it doesn't hinder the deliciousness.
If you want to leave your garlic in the ground year after year, it's worth trying Russian or Elephant Garlic. I know elephants haven't been native to Russia since the mammoths died out - the name refers to the size. The bulbs are gigantic, and so are the cloves, extremely mild and sweet, more like an onion-garlic cross, and excellent baked whole. I like to pull them up before the bulb has begun to separate into cloves, and chop and cook them as a sweet and garlic-scented onion. This luxury needs to be home grown, or become extremely good friends with a gardener.
It's no coincidence that most gardeners are enthusiastic eaters, and excellent cooks, and most enthusiastic cooks adore vegetable gardens. How else can you get exactly the right garlic?
This week I am:
- Trying to convince myself that it will not necessarily rain four times a week next year, and possibly not rain at all. Therefore I should not plant 200 fruit trees, or even 20. But maybe another four...
- Marveling at the Souvenir de Malmaison rose that blooms even when we have had mist and drizzle for the past fortnight
- Not bothering to pick zucchinis;
- Cursing all bush rats, who have eaten all the corn and are now guzzling the tomatoes.
- Not doing anything else about the bush rats, as nature has its ways of controlling bush rats. One cold winter with little food and most will be gone.
- Possibly planting more spring onions and parsley for winter.
- Picking the first Tahitian limes to make lime cordial. The cold snap has convinced the poor things to give a small crop now as well as winter.