What is it about locally grown garlic that attracts more and more chefs? Does the cost justify it? To get a better understanding, I asked garlic-loving chefs and cooks from across Canada. Whether they work in restaurants, hotels, casinos, catering operations or hunting camps, the vast majority prefer using local ingredients. They aren’t the type to count every strip of lemon zest or milligram of vanilla. No, these are chefs who work from the heart… and they know their garlic.
I spoke to Canadian chefs from coast to coast:
- Peggy Vogler, Owner, Aphrodite’s Organic Café, Vancouver
- Chef Shane Chartrand, Sage Restaurant, Edmonton
- Chef Evelyn Reisner, Fresh Dish Catering, from Saskatoon
- Jenni Shrenk, of Chef Jenni, from Saskatoon
- Carrie Watson, Cook, Lac Dumont Fish & Game Club, Otter Lake, Quebec
- Jean Soulard, former Executive Chef at The Château Frontenac Hotel, Quebec City
- Bruno Leger, Chef, Recto Verso Restaurant, Saint Adele, Quebec
- Chef Craig Flinn, Chef/Proprietor, Chives Restaurant in Halifax
- Chef Chris Velden, The Flying Apron Inn & Cookery, Summerville
- Geoff Hopgood, Lightfoot & Wolfville Winery, Wolfville, and finally
- former Canadian camp cook Wendy Trusler, who worked at the Russian Antarctic station in the South Shetland Islands
They all agree that local garlic is essential for any chef worth their salt. And they’ll go out of their way to secure a steady supply. Take Chef Craig Flinn. He spends hours hunting down “the good stuff” from farmers in the Annapolis Valley. “When one farm stopped growing it, I’d look for another farm, and when they stopped growing it I found another,” he said. Clearly, Chef Flinn appreciates his garlic.
Even in truly remote locales, Canadian chefs seek out the nearest local product. A unique example of this is Wendy Trusler, a former camp cook in Antarctica, at a Russian Research Station on Bellingshausen Station on King George Island of the South Shetland Islands. The closest “local” garlic came via freighter and zodiac. “Our garlic — a beautiful three-foot-long braid — came from Ushuaia, Argentina,” said Trusler. “I ordered it before we left for Antarctica and it arrived at Bellingshausen Station by ship, ten days later, with our first group of volunteers. It lasted three months and was the inspiration for many recipes, including roasted herbed garlic with cranberries.”
But what about the unconverted? Why should chefs – who buy imported stuff from the U.S., Mexico, Spain, or China – switch to local garlic? To find out, I grilled these garlic-lovers as to why local is better, and along the way, I learned some cool tips on how to make the higher cost and prep time of local garlic pay off. Despite their very different locales, they all agreed on five key reasons why they are seduced by local garlic:
Local garlic is “an infinitely better product,” says Chef Flinn. “The cloves are firm, they’re super juicy, they taste fantastic. They’re not rubbery and soft. They’re very crisp, they cut easily, and you can do different things with them.” Says Chef Reisner, “Chefs who do really good work using really good ingredients recognize the difference between local garlic and imported garlic.” Part of this comes from how it is grown, and by whom. Says Carrie Watson, “true value always lies with freshness, taste, how it was grown, and by whom. I believe paying attention to these aspects of our food puts good karma in the meals I serve.” Peggy Volger says about using good quality local garlic, “it tastes wonderful and it is so important to support local businesses.”
The complex chemical reactions underlying the superior taste and texture is what makes garlic tick. Imagine the chemicals that make up nitroglycerin. Separately they’re inert and stable. But when mixed, they react violently. Something similar occurs in garlic when an invading pest or herbivore gnaws its way into the plant’s cell walls. That bite triggers a tripwire that activates the plant’s defence mechanism. Two substances stored separately in thousands of cells in the garlic plant are called into action. When the cell walls are breached by the invader, the enzyme alliinase and the compound alliin instantly react to form allicin. That chemical repels the invading pest, which can’t stand the odour. Allicin accounts for much of the smell and taste of garlic. While pests are repelled, humans adapted it into our cooking.
The amount of allicin created in preparation for cooking depends on the number of cell walls breached. And that depends on the method used, such as chopping, or using a garlic press. To get the maximum amount of garlic flavour, thoroughly crush the garlic. Once the garlic is crushed, its flavour changes quite quickly. You can smell the difference between just-crushed garlic and garlic that’s been there too long. It’s “why I use garlic a la minute,” says Chef Michael Stadtländer.
Most Canadian garlic is of a hardneck variety which is well suited to northern climates. They produce a scape that farmers remove about two weeks before harvest. Imported garlic – especially from China — is mostly the softneck type, favoured by commercial growers overseas because it doesn’t produce the labour-intensive scape. The hardneck with its scape varies in flavour in each region of Canada according to climate, soil, weather and growing conditions, something Chef Soulard refers to as cuisine du terroir. Another type of garlic receiving greater interest and has a place in the kitchen with its unique flavour, according to Chef Chartrand, is ethically foraged wild garlic (Allium canadense)
New flavours add novelty to menus. There are many varieties of hardneck garlic, including Porcelain, Purple Stripe, Marbled Purple Stripe, Glazed Purple Stripe, and Rocambole, and many strains within each variety. Each has a unique flavour potential depending on how it’s prepped and cooked. In the case of garlic boiled or roasted whole — where cell walls are not breached – the odour and taste comes from a different set of chemical reactions than what occurs with crushed garlic. And a surprise for some, exploring garlic’s versatility in desserts is a novel, but not gimmicky way to further open customers’ palette to the flavour range of local garlic. For example, black (fermented) garlic – which has a viscous, gummy bear-like texture and a flavour reminiscent of tamarind, licorice and coffee – is an excellent ingredient not only in savoury dishes, but has received growing acclaim in chocolate truffles, butter tarts and ice cream. There are many possibilities using local garlic, which has a superior flavour profile and, in Canada, a higher Brix (sugar) content, lending itself to use in dessert recipes, such as Chef Velden’s famously delicious Apple Spice Cake with Honey-Poached Garlic Sauce.
Garlic is a “head to tail” product. The entire plant tastes like garlic and most of it is edible. The green leaves in early spring are delicious in salads. In late spring and early summer many chefs use the scapes in soups, salads and dips, and cocktails. In the weeks before the summer harvest Chef Geoff Hopgood features garlic greens and scapes in his menu. For Hopgood, both are “spring and early summer type of ingredients”. The scape left on the plant produces a bulbil sac containing anywhere from a few dozen to hundreds of bulbils (tiny, bulb-like seeds) which many chefs preserve in a pickle. Finally, garlic skins serve a role as a thickener and source of flavour, favoured by chefs who dislike having to peel garlic. Simply crush the entire bulb, skin and all, and add to soups and sauces, with the option to use a cheesecloth or, strain later.
GOOD VALUE, Pound for Pound
Chef Evelyn Reisner at Fresh Dish Catering in Saskatoon says, without exaggeration, that when they switched from using imported garlic they found the local garlic, “three times more potent…we had to adjust our recipes and used three times less of the local garlic to get the same amount of flavour.” For example, in making Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes the local garlic was “beautiful, sweet and quite flavourful.” Is it worth the higher cost and prep time? Chef Reisner says yes, “the value is definitely there.”
For Chef Jean Soulard, no amount of imported garlic could equal the flavour profile of the garlic he gets from Quebec markets. To illustrate his point, he mentions a few signature dishes: Magret de canard au sirop d’érable, ail en chemise; Carpaccio de pétoncles et ail noire, vinaigrette à la vanilla; and Carré d’agneau à la saveur de thym et ail nouveau. For these dishes, to use anything but local garlic would be a disservice to the other ingredients. Chef Soulard and Chef Reisner, almost word for word, say that, although local garlic costs more per pound, any chefs who feel they do excellent work with good ingredients would recognize the benefits of using local garlic.
Local ingredients draw new customers. For this reason, chef Jenni Shrenk says that “connecting the food to who’s growing it” is critical. According to Chef Reisner this also helps to address concerns about the safety and humaneness of imported food. She says, “Local farms are known to be safe and humane – while imports may not be.” These and other reasons spark interest in local garlic. They’re why Chef Flinn includes in the menu the name of the farm or market vendor that supplied the garlic.
Going from imported to local garlic is a one-way street and chefs who use local never look back. Their only lament is that they wish they could get more, especially in late winter. Stocking up on local garlic in powdered form is one solution, while Chef Leger makes garlic confit to help get through the lean months. Garlic is widely available in August after the harvest. By the end of the year it’s in short supply. You can find pre-peeled frozen, and fresh local garlic at locations across Canada through the Garlic Map. Click on the map to find a nearby location: