[ farmers ]
They have names like "Romanian Red," "Georgian Fire," "Brown Tempest" and "Colorado Black," and while they might sound like boxers or burlesque dancers or your dealer's latest strains, they're not.
Along with Purple Rocambole, Ajo Rojo and the mysterious WG-18723, they're just a handful of the 63 varieties Tom Culton grows on 2 and a half acres of his 53-acre Culton Organics farm, which sits a few miles west of Lancaster.
Varieties? Of garlic? Given the prominence of the heirloom produce movement, it should come as no surprise that there as many types of the bulbous, cloven onion cousin as there are stars in the heavens. You might not know they exist, of course, because like so many other links in the food transportation chain, varieties that don't travel well or don't look pretty under fluorescent lights never make it to the grocery store.
"There's only one variety out there [in grocery stores], but there are a couple thousand that are available if you search," says Culton, 29, who works his farm on an antique 1949 Allis-Chalmers G tractor. Garlic's diversity is really not so surprising given the plant's propensity to grow in just about any soil, good or bad. "I just thought there was a niche that needed to be served."
The garlic you're likely most familiar with, the stuff in the netted bags at Acme, is called, fittingly and blandly, California White. It became the industry standard thanks to its uniform bulb size and resistance to disease, says Culton. It's fine — but it's far from the last pungent word on the topic.
Culton, a regular face at the Sunday Headhouse Square Farmers Market, is the president of the Garlic Seed Federation, a not-for-profit organization devoted to the appreciation of garlic in its myriad forms. He works the soil at a farm that's been in his family since colonial times (1740, to be exact), and runs it with a joie de vivre uncommon in this era of monocropping.
In addition to garlic, hundreds of different crops and varieties grow from Culton Organic's Duffield silt loam — "the most fertile non-irrigated farmland in the world," he boasts. The last gasps of his fragola quattro stagioni (alpine strawberries), potimarron (French gourds that look like tiny pumpkins and taste like chestnuts) and his beloved artichokes are just about all that remain from this year's growing season.
It's the search for new and exotic crops that keeps the young farmer — who also happens to be a skater who loves Philly markets because it affords him the chance to roll through FDR — motivated. "Not many people grow [garlic] where I live," says Culton. "There's a shortage in terms of quality garlic out there."
Like any other foodstuff, the deeper you get into it, the more nuance you'll find.
"Mainly, we grow different varieties for flavor," says Culton. "Some are less sharp-tasting. Some are very bitey. Some are so spicy that if you would eat them raw it would be like eating a hot pepper. ... Some, if you harvest them at their peak, have some fruitiness reminiscent of orange peel and with a citrusy smell. Some are very earthy and taste like truffle."
And different varieties, of course, also have different aesthetics.
"A lot of people just grow them for the different shapes and colors," says Culton. "Some have bright orange streaks, some are almost purple, some have a real translucent wrapper. Some of them are humongous and some are as small as my pinky knuckle."
Important people have noticed. Among Culton's clients are local heavies Marc Vetri, Michael Solomonov and Daniel Stern, as well as superstar chef Tom Colicchio (whose Porsche, says Culton, was parked in the farm's driveway just a couple of weeks ago).
Part of what differentiates Culton's garlic is the process of curing.
"From when we take it out of the ground, we hang it in bunches in a temperature-controlled room where the moisture is taken out of it. We make sure the air is moving around it. After we hang it for eight to 12 weeks, we'll take some down, split it apart and slice it to make sure it has the proper moisture," he explains. Once cured, garlic "will last for at least six to eight months without shooting a sprout out of it. Most commercial garlic is rushed out of that process. It's cured for two weeks, then shipped."
That's why, should you not cook with your store-bought garlic quickly, you'll find those pushy green shoots popping out of the cloves.
Cradling a bundle of long-stalked Rose de Lautrec garlic from his private stash, Culton gloats over the almost-see-through skin that, when pressed, reveals a faint pinkish hue. Among Culton's other favorites are the Georgian Crystal, Russian Bogatyr, the Catskills' Mohawk, and a wild strain he stumbled upon and named Nancy's for his late mother. (Six of his garlics are of the wild, unnamed variety.)
"I found it growing wild and I've been growing it out and taking bigger and bigger bulbs," says Culton. "It's pretty mellow. It's got a sweetness to it that's not fairly commonly found in garlic." It's a strain that he says can actually be enjoyed raw, though his preferred method for appreciating the stuff is "roasted, whole."
Which isn't to say that raw garlic doesn't have its proponents, as well — but for different reasons. Especially out in Pennsylvania Dutch country, garlic is seen as medicinal. "I hate to say it, but when I get sick I eat a whole clove of the hottest garlic I have," admits Culton. "Find the gnarliest garlic you can. It's a Pennsylvania Dutch preparation. All my Amish friends eat it raw."
What's the gnarliest garlic Culton's got? "A lot of the hottest ones are Russian," he says, before settling on Chesnok Red from the Republic of Georgia. "It scares the living shit out of whatever you have."