Medicinal tales of a hardy bulb
“Garlic is divine. Few food items can taste so many distinct ways, handled correctly. Misuse of garlic is a crime. ... Please, treat your garlic with respect. ... Avoid at all costs that vile spew you see rotting in oil in screwtop jars. Too lazy to peel fresh? You don't deserve to eat garlic.” ―Anthony Bourdain
As something that can withstand winter in the freezing Maine dirt, it must be tough—tough enough that you should eat it, and lots of it. It’s one of the few edible items, and certainly the most commonly consumed, that is planted and left in the ground all year. Somehow it not only survives the winter, but also manages to produce fresh green sprouts in the spring when temperatures warm and the soil softens. Flowers come to mind, like tulips and daffodils, or maybe even peonies, which grow alongside this dietary staple at Green Garden Farm in St. Albans, but this is a different kind of bulb: garlic.
Garlic has been touted as beneficial in everything from treating heart disease to boosting the immune system and acting as a natural antiseptic. Oh, and eating lots of it also keeps biting bugs away (vampires, too). The question is where these soft little cloves get their big healing power.
The secret lies in a chemical called allicin. Allicin is created by combining two components found in garlic—alliin and alliinase—which come together through mechanical action. So, when you see instructions in a recipe to smash, crush, or bruise garlic, it’s not just for fun or to break the garlic into smaller pieces; it’s actually to help form the allicin. If you can let the smashed garlic sit for several minutes to allow the allicin to develop, so much the better.
Given its myriad health benefits, it’s no wonder that there is a high demand for garlic worldwide, and Maine is no exception. The Maine Potato Lady, otherwise and coincidentally named Alison LaCourse, has been growing garlic on her farm in Parkman for over 25 years. “When we first started growing garlic, there wasn’t a lot being grown in Maine. Now we have a demand for more seed garlic than we can produce,” she says. Garlic isn’t native to Maine, but many varieties thrive here. They came from Central Asia, and some of their names, like Russian Red and Georgian Fire, reflect their origins in that continent’s own chilly climates.
The two major groups of garlic are softnecks and hardnecks. Softnecks are mostly grown in California and China; they’re what you typically find in grocery stores, as they are easy to process, store well, and have a mild flavor. Some softneck varieties are grown locally, including silverskin and artichoke garlics. These have lovely skins that can be braided to make decorations. “Nootka Rose has these pretty pink wrappers, and they’re quite flavorful too,” says Ben Whatley of Whatley Farm in Topsham. “For example, Inchelium Red is rich and buttery, for a garlic. Softnecks are what I describe as warm, not hot, garlics,” he adds.
Hardnecks are heartier and thus are most of what is grown in Maine. These varieties have flowering stems that produce tender and delicious green shoots in the spring, known as scapes. Their tips spiral into whimsical green curlicues that can be used much like scallions. They’re one of Whatley’s favorite parts of the garlic, and he uses them to make a delicious scape pesto that can be frozen and enjoyed as a reminder of spring during the depths of winter. “When people wonder what they are or what to do with them, I roll up my shirt sleeves and show them,” he says, showing me his colorful tattoo of a scape.
Rocamboles are the most common group of hardnecks. Then there are the purple stripe varieties with their pretty striped wrapping; and finally there are the porcelain garlics, which have the fattest cloves and also have particularly high levels of allicin—varieties like Music, Georgian Crystal, German Extra Hardy, and Italian Purple.
Another critical difference between garlic varieties is taste. Some varieties, like Georgian Fire, produce heat. Heat is a reflection of the level of allicin, so hot is good. “I’ve always figured if it’s a hot garlic, it’s good medicine,” says Whatley. “When I have a cold, I like to have buttered toast with slices of raw garlic.”
In Bowdoinham, Zoe Howell-Martin is experimenting on Scape Goat Farm with growing Siberian garlic, which has some of the highest levels of allicin. “I’ve got seven varieties in full production and am trying out a few new ones, but I’m keeping those secret for now,” she says with a smile. Howell-Martin has a deep understanding of garlic’s health benefits from her training as an herbalist. She got her degree in herbal medicine at the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism. When she came back to Maine, she planted some garlic one season in her backyard garden and landed on a plan. Part of the reason she chose garlic was its health benefits. “I have yet to get sick this winter, and I eat large amounts of garlic. I get a good daily dose whether it’s raw, cooked in meals, or the garlic-stuffed green olives I’m addicted to,” she says.
Heron Breen from Fruits of Our Labors Farm (FOOL) credits garlic for helping him to survive a debilitating autoimmune disorder. He’s been growing garlic in St. Albans for the past 20 years. “I was relatively disabled for a number of years in my early twenties and had to rely on steroids. Part of my recovery has been eating a balanced healthy diet, and garlic is a big part of it,” he says. “It helps me remain a good-functioning machine.”
And LaCourse (the Maine Potato Lady) says, “We’ve been eating garlic all these years we’ve been growing it. I’m pretty healthy, and my husband is 77 and you wouldn’t believe his health. I’m not a super fancy cook, but we start every meal with onions and garlic.”
Some people like garlic straight up, and others use it in various pastes and elixirs. Andy McLeod of Scratch Farm in Bowdoin makes homemade Fire Cider—apple cider vinegar infused with a mixture of ingredients—in Scratch’s seasonal farm boxes. Fire Cider is taken in small doses to help “burn out the bad stuff,” as McLeod describes.
Another way to treat garlic is to ferment it through slow cooking. Unlike roasting, which can denature the beneficial enzymes in garlic, cooking it at a low temperature allows the compounds to develop over time. The result, “black garlic,” looks gooey and rotten but is actually super healthy. “All of the harsh heat of the garlic turns to sweetness,” says Phil Rowling, who has worked at Morning Glory Natural Foods in Brunswick for more than 15 years. Rowling has been experimenting with his Black Garlic Fermenter (yes, there is a special machine designed just for this). He’s learned about the benefits of garlic through his work at the store, which sells a variety of products containing garlic. Morning Glory’s naturopath Paula Cluney says, “Garlic is a superfood. There is continually growing interest in garlic as a medicinal food and supplement due to its vast medicinal benefits.”
Finally, what could be healthier than the camaraderie between these growers and their customers who buy local? “When I got into farming, I found that other farmers were the most helpful, kind people out there,” says Howell-Martin (Scape Goat Farm). Customers definitely appreciate it as well, as Toby Tarpinian, owner of Morning Glory, echoed. “Each year customers eagerly await local garlic season and are excited to bring home this beautiful vegetable.”
Susan Olcott is a freelance writer living in Brunswick with her husband and 8-year-old twin girls. She loves to write about all things coastal including and particularly those that are edible.