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The Dirt on GarlicThe Dirt on Garlic

April 19, 2010

8 Min Read
The Dirt on Garlic

By Justin Guibert, Contributing Editor

For centuries, garlic (Allium sativum) has been prized by cultures around the world for its benefits as a healthy and flavorful ingredient. Legend has it that the ancient Egyptians wore bulbs of garlic around their necks to give them strength as they constructed the pyramids, and Roman soldiers consumed raw cloves before going to battle. Today, the world is embracing garlic once again for its culinary and health attributes.

Growing garlic demand

There are two main types, or subspecies, of garlic: hardneck garlic (var. ophioscorodon) and softneck garlic (var. sativum). Hardneck garlic typically has smaller, more-uniform bulbs, while softneck generally has larger bulbs with more cloves of more-variable size. Flavor can vary with garlic type, and the climate where the plants are grown can also influence flavor.

Green garlic is young garlic harvested before the bulb develops, yielding tender leaves with delicate flavor that add a mellow touch of garlic to any recipe. It has been growing in popularity among consumers and chefs, but availability has been limited to farmers markets and specialty produce purveyors during the springtime. The upcoming harvest marks the first time this seasonal delicacy will be available in markets nationwide beyond the spring.

Heirloom seed is a critical factor in the cultivation of garlic because the different seed stocks used around the world lend to unique flavor profiles. Certain varieties compromise flavor for more pounds per acre or better appearance. The exclusive Monviso seed line grown by Christopher Ranch, Gilroy, CA, traces its lineage back to the Piedmont region of Northern Italy. For over 50 years, Ranch farmers have perfected their seed program to maintain the distinct garlic flavor that this variety delivers.

From seed to store

It all starts with a single clove, which is planted as seed in the fall. Over time, the clove germinates, a sprout emerges, and the first signs of a new plant are evident. As the plant matures, the original clove falls off and a new bulb begins to form in its place. By spring, the plant can reach a height of up to 2 feet. In the summer months, the leaves begin to yellow, water is cut off, and the bulbs begin an underground curing process that lasts several weeks. Finally, 9 months after planting, the bulbs are undercut (usually by hand) and laid in rows to further cure in the sun and wind. The final harvesting step is to hand top the garlic by cutting the roots and stems and placing in storage bins. From there, they are taken to the packing facility to be processed.

In the packing sheds, the garlic runs through graders, where it is sorted and sized. The best quality bulbs are packed into cases for the retail market. Bulbs with missing cloves or loose skins are collected and taken to the cracker, where they are distributed onto belts and passed under rubber rollers that break the bulbs into individual cloves. The cloves are again sorted by size and placed into bins, which sit overnight on heaters to loosen the skins and prepare the cloves for peeling.

Grown in the USA

Garlic is grown globally and has become a critical flavor component for a variety of international cuisines. The vast majority of U.S. garlic comes from California, and most California garlic production is centralized in Gilroy, CA, affectionately known as the garlic capital of the world. However, recently, China has emerged as the worlds leading source, growing two-thirds of the world supply. Even in the United States, where California-grown garlic is available year-round, Chinese garlic amounts to well over half of the domestic supply. The International Trade Commission reports that Chinese garlic exports into the U.S. in 2009 alone totaled 145 million pounds.

Despite garlics increasing popularity, U.S. production has actually declined over the last several decades. Starting in the early 1990s when domestic garlic plantings struggled with disease, Chinese imports have slowly gained traction in U.S. markets. A 376% anti-dumping tariff was implemented to prevent illegal dumping at U.S. ports, but Chinese imports have continued to grow nonetheless. California growers have taken a huge hit during this time, unable to compete with cheaper Chinese garlic that isnt subject to the same quality, food safety, labor and environmental regulations. However, recent media scares over tainted Chinese products have led many consumers to investigate where their food is grown and how it is produced.

 This demand for greater transparency, accountability and oversight has led to the resurgence of domestic sources like Christopher Ranch, where rigorous food-safety audits and Good Manufacturing Practices instill a greater sense of confidence in the quality and safety of the product, says Jeff Stokes, vice president of sales, Christopher Ranch.

Analysis in food labs and feedback from consumers has revealed further differences in support of domestically grown garlic. Lab tests reveal that California garlic has 23% higher Brix levels, indicating that it has higher oil content and less water saturation, leading to a better sauté and more concentrated flavor. Allicin, the compound released when garlic is crushed, and likely responsible for garlics numerous reported health benefits, also exists in quantities up to 19% higher in domestic over imported.

Both our chef and processing customers report that California-grown garlic is 2 to 3 times more flavorful than Chinese garlic, negating any perceived price difference, says Rick Dyer, national accounts manager for Christopher Ranch. Dyer and other proponents of California garlic are aggressively promoting these differences and raising awareness about the benefits of California grown.

This past year, Chinese growers reacted to years of overproduction and low prices by cutting acreage by 50%. This led to a global shortage, which was further exacerbated by the swine flu, causing demand to skyrocket since garlic is widely regarded as a disease-fighting agent. The supply shortage is likely to persist until new crops becomes available in the summer.  In the meantime, domestic growers continue their efforts to differentiate California grown garlic as a fresher, more flavorful, and more sustainable alternative to imported product.

Dining trends toward sustainability, locally grown produce, and increased awareness about the stories behind our food supply all bode favorably for California growers in 2010 and beyond, concludes Stokes.

Appeal of garlic ingredients

Peeled garlic was introduced to the market over 20 years ago in response to consumer demand for a solution to the tedious but necessary task of peeling cloves. Garlic processors long suspected there may be a market for peeled garlic, but couldnt figure out a way to peel the cloves efficiently without damaging them. Christopher Ranch experimented with several prototypes that didnt deliver the quality they were targeting, and stumbled upon a workable solution by chance when a technician who was cleaning one of the sheds with an air hose blasted some cloves that had fallen into a coffee can. The compressed air, coupled with the rotational movement of the cloves in the can, cleanly removed the skins, and peeled garlic was born. This technology was incorporated into the proprietary state-of-the-art peeling plant on the Ranch today. Cracked cloves are loaded into stainless steel cups, which pass through air peelers where blasts of compressed air remove the skins. The cloves then pass through an optical sorter that takes a digital scan of each clove as it passes through. If it fails to grade according to preset specifications, a jet blast of air kicks it off the line. The remaining cloves go through a hand-sorting station for a final check, and then circulate through coolers to bring the temperature down before they are weighed and packed. 

Most peeled cloves are packed into jars, but some are placed into bins for further processing in either the purée plant or the roasting plant. In the purée plant, cloves can be chopped or puréed for use in foodservice or manufacturing applications. In the roasting plant, cloves pass through a convection oven for 10 minutes at 450°F to achieve a perfectly consistent golden hue and a nutty, mellowed flavor before being cooled under a series of fans and packed.

The convenience afforded by these value-added garlic products has led to a steady increase in garlic consumption over the years. Americans now consume an estimated 3.1 lbs of garlic annually. This growth in popularity has also been supported by the hugely popular Gilroy Garlic Festival, founded in 1979 to promote garlic and support local charities. Thousands of garlic lovers flock to Gilroy every July to enjoy cooking demonstrations, garlic topping contests, live music and an abundance of garlic-infused delicacies.

Justin Guibert is a foodservice sales and marketing representative for Christopher Ranch of Gilroy, CA. He works with chefs and restaurant operators to promote the benefits of California heirloom garlic. He can be contacted via email at [email protected] . Gilroy-based Christopher Ranch  has been an industry leader since 1956, when founder Don Christopher started farming garlic with a planting of 10 acres. Today, his son Bill oversees cultivation of over 3,000 acres and shipment of over 60 million pounds annually, distinguishing the Ranch as a premier grower for the fresh market and the only commercial source of heirloom garlic.

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