Set the Table with Garlic

Bill selling garlic

Written on

June 01 , 2007

Garlic has been called many things during its long history of cultivation by humans. “Stinky” may be the most common invective but perhaps a better way to describe this love-it-or-leave-it vegetable is patient.

It can take nine months or more for some varieties of garlic to take root and grow, depending on climate. In the same amount of time in which a human baby forms in its mother’s womb, a single clove develops deep in the ground to become the white-sheathed bulb we pick up at grocery stores.

Garlic takes its time, in other words. We could even call it a bit shy. Like bears in winter, garlic hibernates.

At Muffin and Bill Acquaviva’s farm in Westminster West, the garlic that’s harvested in August is planted in October of the year before. This means that for most of the year – while the couple are milking their 20-odd dairy cows, sugaring their maples, or tending to their chickens and pigs and beef cattle – their allium sativum remains largely absent from sight.

Come late summer, though, the harvested garlic at Livewater Farm takes over the     barn, where it’s laid out to dry, and takes over Muffin’s life as she assembles jars of pickled garlic, garlic braids, and other products to sell at fairs and markets.

“I don’t make the braids too pretty anymore,” Muffin says with a laugh. “I want people to actually eat the garlic they buy from us.”

The amount of garlic that Americans eat every year – currently 3 pounds per person – has been steadily rising over the past decade, although we don’t consume nearly as much as Asians, who take in about 50 pounds per person annually, according to the Garlic Seed Foundation of Rose, N.Y.

And nearly half of the garlic we eat is imported – most of it from China, according to  2004 figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For decades, the vast majority of America’s garlic came from California but since 2000 the state’s garlic production has been on a steep decline – a victim largely of international trade policies and China’s abundance of cheap farm labor.

The problem with garlic from far away, though, is that by the time it reaches grocery stores it is often no longer built to last. Supermarket bulbs have usually been refrigerated and, as a result, they tend to sprout green shoots (an indicator of lost flavor) soon after they reach room temperature. Fresh, local garlic bought in the late summer or fall – and kept in a cool, dry, dark place – can last much longer.

Garlic cultivation begins at Livewater Farm when Bill chooses the best cloves from the summer harvest. These “seed cloves” – which are technically plants, not seeds – tend to come from the most uniform bulbs.

In mid- to late spring, as the bulbs are still developing in the soil, flower stalks appear above the ground. The tops are known as scapes and tend to curl in the field. At Livewater the scapes are cut after they turn a full circle. They are seen as a welcome sign of spring and eaten like chives.

After the bulbs are pulled from the ground in August, they are dried in the Acquvivas’ barn for a week or two. As with hay, humid weather can make the drying process take longer, and rainy weather can cause mold to form. After this curing is over, the roots at the bottom of each bulb are cut and the stalks at the top are removed.

Muffin keeps the stalks on some bulbs and soaks them in water to make them pliable   for braid-making. She has sold many of her garlic creations at the popular Southern Vermont Garlic & Herb Festival that takes place every Labor Day weekend. (For more info, go to www.lovegarlic.com.)

Not all of the Acquavivas’ garlic will grace the breath of humans, though. Because the vegetable is a natural antibiotic, Bill sometimes uses it to treat mastitis in his dairy cows. He chops the garlic, places it in a capsule and pushes it down the throats of his sick cows with a plunger-type device.

Chances are, though, the Livewater cows can’t tell the difference between the garlic varieties grown on the farm: German White, Korean, Muzik and Bulgarian. The variety most often found at grocery stores is German White. Muffin’s favorite is Bulgarian because the oil is so hot, and a little goes a long way.

“It burns the skin right off my fingers when I cut a lot of it,” she says.

Sometimes weather conditions cause the garlic at Livewater Farm to not do so well during a given season, but the Acquavivas can sell their other crops and livestock to pull them through. In addition to garlic, they sell eggs, organic raw milk, beef and pork. Future plans include sausages.

“On a small farm, you have to be diverse,” Muffin says. “Nothing is a sure thing. The garlic may rot in the ground or the maple sugaring may end two weeks early. You have to celebrate when things go well and not beat yourself up when they don’t.”

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