A herd of garlics picks its way across the plain. Some are large, with smooth, thick skin; some are small, slender and delicate, or tough, compact; some have papery skin tinged purple or yellow; some heads are missing cloves, proof of the long road. All travel in varying shades of white.
They roll on, yearning for a purpose, waiting for the fulfillment of their ultimate use. They are taken up to be minced, whisked raw into oil and vinegar. They are chopped and sautéed with other vegetable brethren. Then there are the lucky ones – roasted whole and spread on crusty bread. And those honoured ones being sent to seed, to keep the lineage strong and ensure the next generations sprout bold and pungent from the soil, that they may mature, cure, and tumble down to join their own in the noble quest for the greatest of culinary fates.
Like other great journeys, their wandering search inspires stories, songs, legends. At night, when the garlics rest, they recall those who have passed – they who simmered in stock, who were crushed with chili and salt, or pounded with herbs and cheese, who were sliced to rub a bowl and discarded. There are as many fates as there are fires flickering on the darkened heath, as many teloi as there are curved wisps of allial skin that fall underclove and blow backwards through the dusk.
There is one fate, however, that the garlics do not openly discuss. It is unrecognisable to them, a world apart from any of the other transformations understood through the legends. It makes their hard white flesh turn soft and black; their raw rough pungency disappears, unfurling into a bold, aromatic depth; gradually, over many weeks, they begin to taste not of themselves, but of myriad others: ripe fruits, balsamic vinegar, liquorice, molasses, tamarind.
The garlics wonder whether subjected to this fate they remain garlics at all. Thus this is the fate most awesome and most feared. There are scattered stories, known by few, passed down to remember but not to share. Is it even a fate? Or rather an anti-fate, an exception – the chance mutation in their otherwise diverse yet complete self-image?
The garlics spoke to me. I asked them and they told me this story, hushed, made me promise that it die along with me. Yet I could not agree. They do not realise the significance of this fate – that it is, perhaps, their highest and most honourable calling.
The garlics are taken and kept whole. They are placed in sealed containers, and kept at sixty degrees celsius for forty days. After this time, the cloves are checked for ripeness – black and soft all the way through, and heavily fragrant – and if ready are separated from their skins, now browned and easily cast off with a light crackling and a soft peel. It is not ‘cooking’ as they know it, nor fermentation, but rather a form of the cascading chains of chemical transformations known as the Maillard Reaction, occuring at a lower temperature over a longer period of time.
Once I knew this story, I scooped up armfuls of heads, all manner of them, even some other of their allial bulb cousins like onions and shallots, laid them in plastic boxes, and placed them in my dehydrator. After six weeks, I could not stop finding uses for them: blended into a smooth paste and smeared on toast with fresh cheese, mixed in with yoghurt or any other fermented dairy product; spooned into soup stock for added colour and depth of flavour; dried, pulverised and sprinkled as a spice; sliced into salads; eaten whole with a spoon.
The garlics are one of the most health-giving foods we know of. With this most delicious of fates, they gain a whole new dimension of versatility on the culinary plain. Bulbs of this fate should be celebrated, praised, raised up as a pinnacle of glorious allium-hood. Yet they do not know it.
I call you up, all of you, to this task: let us show the garlics the true nature of this their fate, and one of their best. Let us dispel the terror, let us deshroud the mystery – let us make this fate not feared but revered. Let us blacken our garlics. Let them turn black, and they will know that it is good.
Josh loves to cook, eat, read, write and adventure. He has written for Food Studies on GOOD and Grist, and recently graduated from Yale University where he worked with the Yale Sustainable Food Project.