GARLIC is the unsung hero of food. The sweet, pungent aroma has an ability to get even the most hardened of taste buds excited.
As well as possessing a talent for transforming the flavour of any dish it is paired with, it is also incredibly good for us. It has a natural anti-microbial property, earning itself the nickname ‘Russian penicillin,’ and is good for the blood too, so maybe there is truth to the myth of garlic and vampires after all…
Despite its everyday use in homes and restaurants across the country, Ireland grows very little of its own garlic. Other vegetables in the allium family, onion, shallot and leek, fare much better in our cooler, wetter climate.
But to meet our insatiable demand for garlic, Ireland imports huge amounts from around the world — $6.85m worth of it in 2019 alone.
This imported garlic is what we are most likely to come into contact with during our supermarket shop. In general, it is produced using orthodox methods: that is to say, with chemical pesticides and herbicides and then irradiated (a process using ionized radiation) to kill off any remaining disease and bacteria to extend shelf life.
But, in Cork, one producer is looking to muscle in and offer a range of Irish garlic and garlic products that are grown chemical-free. West Cork Garlic, based near Enniskeane, was set up in 2011 by artist, Axel Miret, and his wife and keen gardener, Marye. The recession of 2008 hit artists hard, so by way of trying to earn a little extra income, they started to grow garlic in their one-acre garden at home and selling it at Skibbereen Farmers’ Market.
Everything was worked by hand, from planting the garlic sets (seeds), to pulling the ready to harvest bulbs, drying and curing ready for market. A truly seasonal, cottage industry product.
By 2014, the business of growing began to expand into the business of farming, from a one acre garden plot to a five acre leased field, and Axel and Marye handed over the reins of the business to Welsh-born Bryn Perrin.
In the six years since, he has taken the business from a micro-enterprise to one that has embraced the necessity of expansion and innovation, yet can still be found in the summer selling its beautiful garlic at the Farmers’ Markets in Bantry and Skibbereen.
“I took the whole business, shook it about and turned it around,” says Bryn.
“In the nicest possible way, for Axel and Marye who started it all, it was a bit of a hobby for them and I had to make an income from it: and that involved expanding.”
Bryn’s parents moved to North Wales in 1964 with his two brothers.
“I was the only one born in Wales, hence the name! I’ve been involved in horticulture since I was a kid, studied it at college in England when I was a teenager and worked in horticulture on various projects in Wales and England until I came to Ireland in 1997.
“There wasn’t much happening for me in the mid-’90s in England and I had a friend in West Cork so decided to come over for a while and see if there was anything happening, and then just never went back!
“I changed the way the garlic was grown. Axel and Marye had done everything by hand right from beginning to end, but we have tractors now and bespoke machinery to suit the way we are growing. We’ve invested to get it all a bit more mechanised because literally harvesting with a hand fork is not on when you’ve got 50,000 bulbs of garlic to dig up!”
There’s a five to six-year crop rotation with growing garlic. With each new growing cycle for the five acres, the crop moves from field to field, leaving the ground fallow and removing the opportunity for soil-borne disease to build up and threaten the health of the crops. Essential anyway when growing garlic, says Bryn, but especially so when growing without the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. The land in Ballincarriga is leased from a farmer who has 200 acres in total.
“There is plenty of room to move about. We currently have five acres under plantation. The most we’ve ever had is between seven and eight.
“It is hard work; you’ve got to love what you’re doing. The main growing season runs from the end of May until the end of July, beginning of August, and we plant about 40,000 sets per year, although it does vary.
“Axel and Marye used to grow ten different varieties, and I carried that on for the first year or two, but it gets complicated quite quickly with that many because they all have different requirements, feeding regimes and harvesting times, so now we stick to five varieties that we know do really well in our climate.”
There are two main groups of garlic, Soft Neck which doesn’t produce a flower, and Hard Neck, which does.
“Soft Neck is used for what is called Fresh or Green garlic, and you are left with about ten inches of stem. When they are fresh like this, the whole stem can be sliced up and eaten like a scallion, but we do cure and dry them as well.
“Hard Neck have a hard, woody stem running all the way down into the bulb itself. They are not suited for slicing, but they tend to be stronger. We grow three varieties of Hard Neck garlic (Lautrec Rose, Early White and Russian Red), and two varieties of Soft Neck, (Iberian and Messidor).”
When growers specialise in one type of crop, it is important to innovate with that product as much as possible. For Bryn, this has meant finding ways to extend the season, produce new products from the fresh garlic and ensure there is zero waste.
Extending the season and innovating with new products go hand in hand, and for Bryn this has resulted in producing an award-winning ingredient, Black Garlic, and also finding a ready market for Garlic Scapes, the long, winding flower stem of the Hard Neck garlic.
“Year by year, our season is getting longer. Our main selling season for our Soft and Hard Neck garlic runs from about mid-April.
“The Hard Necks will produce long stems and flowers, called Scapes. We have to pick the Scape off the plant otherwise the energy will go into producing a flower and not the bulb. But four years ago, I couldn’t sell a Scape to save my life — no-one knew what to do with them, so they would end up on the compost heap! Now people know to treat them like asparagus spears, make pesto out of them and all sorts of things. I produce about 100 kg of Garlic Scapes every year, and Redmond’s Fine Foods buy every kilo I have from me every year and distribute them nationwide to the restaurant industry,” said Bryn.
Finding a market for the Scapes kicks of the harvesting season and provides the farm with a cash boost after the winter when all growing and harvesting activity is done.
“The bulb harvest starts around the beginning of June until October and November, although we can stretch the stocks into December and January now because we have found the varieties that store really well.”
In 2019, Bryn was awarded the Chef’s Choice award at Blas na hEireann, the Irish Food Awards, for his Black Garlic. Still considered something relatively new to consumers, Black Garlic has been used by chefs for a number of years to add deep umami flavour to dishes.
But, despite frequently being referred to as a fermented food, Bryn disagrees because of how it is made.
“It’s not a true fermentation, Black Garlic is made through the Maillard process. This is the same process that browns the crust on your bread, browns meat or caramelises vegetables, and it happens inside the bulb turning the cloves a deep brown, almost black, hence the name. The garlic has to be absolutely bone dry and perfect in every way without any blemish at all. We have a machine that exposes the garlic through various cycles of high humidity and low humidity, high temperature and low temperature, and goes through those cycles for up to three weeks. Some people then sell them, but I prefer to rest it and leave it in the stores for another three or four months. I think it only improves with age.
“It’s a completely different kind of product, even though it starts out as ordinary garlic, the process completely changes it, and is far removed from ordinary garlic when it is done. But it is also a method of preserving the garlic: it’ll stay good to use for up to two years, and as far as I’m concerned, it only improves its flavour by concentrating it.”
Both the Scapes and the Black Garlic extend the season from six months to nine.
“It’s great to have something to sell during the winter months when we’re quiet — no harm for us anyway if it’s quiet January to March because we’re flat out the rest of the time. It’s just another little income to have when you don’t have fresh garlic to sell, that’s the reason we started experimenting with it.”
As well as fresh and dried garlic, scapes and black garlic, there are also seed sets available to buy online — a carry over from Axel and Marye’s gardeners’ enthusiasm to encourage others to have a go at growing garlic.
This year, people have returned to their gardens in droves: for escapism or just for the security of growing some food for yourself. As a result, demand for seed is already high.
“I had some enquiries as early as the end of July for planting garlic, so I did put the shop online and things went crazy for a little while. Seed season is from the end of September, that’s when I start sending orders out. I think there’ll be extra demand for it this year because people will be keen for getting into their gardens and give growing garlic a go.
“At the end of the year, we rarely have lots of stock left over. We may have a few small bulbs remaining, there’s always a percentage of them, but even then, we can make something, like pickles.
“Some dairy farmers take small bulbs off me for treating their cows for mastitis because of the garlic’s anti-microbial properties.
“Nothing goes to waste, even down to the dried leaves. Beekeepers like those for using in their smokers to agitate bees out of the hive. The smoke is anti-microbial, and it has to be chemical-free. So, even down to stuff like that, the garlic has a use.”
West Cork Garlic have an online shop where you can purchase green, dried and black garlic, onions and seed too.
Find them at Bantry Farmers’ Market on Fridays, and Skibbereen Farmers’ Market on Saturdays, or in SuperValu stores across the region.