by Sarah West

My first farming experience was with garlic. The woman I worked for grew organic seed garlic, which means most of the bulbs we tended and coddled were never tasted by anyone. Despite its utilitarian destiny, this was, and still remains, the most perfect garlic I have ever seen. Dozens of varieties passed through our hands, and at the cleaning table I studied each for its unique qualities. Some of the bulbs’ papers were painted with purple streaks, some with pink or brown. Many were dull white, though a special few varieties had papers that seemed to glow, shimmering like the surface of a pearl.

Not long before I began working on the garlic farm, I was reading the newly released Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and learned that garlic is only harvested once a year. The fact astonished me at the time. Garlic is something I eat nearly every day, that mesmerizes me each time I add it to hot oil, but I was completely clueless as to who it was. I knew it only as an ingredient, not a living thing.

My first month there, we worked the rows on our knees, pulling weeds. We would make our way through the acre or so of garlic only to have to start again at the beginning. The soil had a lot of clay, so it was sticky and tight when wet, nearly impenetrable when dry. Even so, the work was made light by good conversation, the chirping of frogs in a nearby pond. Every so often we would look up from the microcosm of weeds to a panoramic view of the mountain valley we lived in: the valley’s bowl crowned by a stretch of mountains blanketed in conifers, a few distant, rocky peaks.

Long before we harvested our first bulb, the garlic began its offerings. First came the garlic shoots, young plants I found sprouting in the compost pile. I plucked a bundle of them to take home. Like scallions, we minced them into sautés, sprinkled them on eggs, stirred them into quiche. Their flavor is softer than scallions, green and herbal with a background aroma of garlic without the bite.

Next were the scapes, leafless stems that arose from the top of the plant, at the end what looked like a large flower bud. As it grows, a scape twists around making one curly loop and another, before uncurling and stretching straight again. This peculiar dance gives this category of garlic (the “hardnecks”) its scientific name, Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon, coming from the root word ophis, Greek for snake. We cut these serpent scapes to promote bulb development, filling cartloads of them that we dumped in the compost. I took bagfuls home to experiment with, making a very strong pesto that I found too overpowering to eat a second time, and mellower sautéed stalks, something like a garlicky asparagus.

As the bud-like tips at the end of the scapes burst open, they revealed an aggregate globe of tiny white kernels. My farmer friend explained to me that they are called bulbils, and are essentially like the cloves of the garlic bulb—each containing the same genetic material as the parent plant, rather than seeds, which are the result of pollination. I took some from varieties that had larger bulbils, about the size of a small chickpea, to peel and brine in vinegar. The results looked like tiny pearl onions and tasted fantastic on a salad or just right out of the jar, but the process of peeling all those tiny things took over an hour, so it remains my first and only attempt at garlic bulbil pickles.

By the time harvest came, the soil was dry and hard around the bulbs. Some rows we felt more like we were chiseling than digging, breaking clods of dirt in two to reveal a perfect garlic bulb inside. As we lifted them from the ground, brushed dirt from their roots, and loaded the garlic into carts, we stirred up a pleasing aroma: the humus and minerals of soil mixed with the softest scent garlic can make, not unlike when it’s sautéing in the pan but with more perfume and freshness. This nectar lingered in the air, filled the barn where we hung them to cure, faded finally as they dried so that when it was time to clean and grade, the bulbs hardly had a scent at all.

Garlic came alive for me that summer, as other plants and vegetables have since then, each with its unique cycle, its story. I grow a patch of garlic every year and wait eagerly for the moment of unearthing, when the hidden bulbs are made visible and the aroma of soil and garlic fills the air—its ephemeral delicacy.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, November 1, 2012)