July/August 2015 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos by Tomas Ovalle, Cecilia Parsons, Marisa Errotabere and Sensient Natural Ingredients
Pungent vegetable adds flavor in many forms
Brothers Dan, Remi and Jean Errotabere, from left, stand in a Fresno County field of garlic in the spring, when the young plants still have their green tops.
Whether it is used to jazz up mashed potatoes or worn around the neck to repel vampires, the "stinking rose" has never been shy about its distinctive aroma and potency.
And there is no mistaking the piquant bouquet in the fields starting each summer when heads of garlic are dug from beneath the soil, exposing white clumps wrapped in thin layers of papery skin.
"When we harvest them, the air is rich with garlic smell. It's a good time to go out there," said Fresno County farmer Dan Errotabere, who, along with his brothers Jean and Remi, has been growing garlic for more than 25 years.
Being of Basque descent, Errotabere said his palate is no stranger to garlic, an ingredient found in many Basque recipes and one that is ever present in his meat dishes.
The garlic that comes out of his fields is also ever present in many kitchen pantries and spice racks, often in the form of garlic powder, garlic flakes or some other dehydrated version. All of the Errotaberes' garlic goes to Sensient Natural Ingredients in Turlock to be made into those various garlic products.
In its dry form, garlic continues to find its way into myriad food applications, whether it's added to a spice blend or used by other food manufacturers to flavor their products, said Michael Swenson, Sensient's director of business development. Demand for garlic has increased worldwide, he added, as people become more conscious about cutting their salt intake but still want to add flavor to their foods.
"We see a growth in general for things like garlic and onion, because so many companies are trying to reduce sodium out of their formulations," he said. "One of the key ways to do that is to substitute more savory vegetable powders like garlic, onion and chili (pepper). You get a more nutritious product and you get less sodium."
Sensient's dehydrated garlic is used all over the world, with most of its 500 customers located in North America but also in South America, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, Swenson said. Its garlic even ends up in some pet foods, he noted.
At its research lab in Livingston, Sensient Natural Ingredients scientist Ye Xinrong examines the progress of garlic propagated from tissue culture.
A seedless start
The growing process for this garlic actually begins in Sensient's research laboratory in Livingston several years before the Errotaberes take over on the farm. The lab is where the company propagates disease-free garlic from tissue culture, said Kris Van Elswyk, Sensient's director of field operations.
"The garlic that Sensient grows all started in a test tube literally years ago," he said. "It's a complicated situation, and most people do not know this aspect of producing garlic."
Unlike most other vegetables, garlic does not produce a seed, so what gets planted is the actual garlic clove that a person would eat. But crops grown this way are also prone to diseases, Van Elswyk said. By starting in a laboratory, Sensient is able to eliminate much of that risk and protect young garlic from infection.
After years growing in the lab, the cloves are ready to be planted by garlic seed growers whose sole job is to reproduce more of those cloves that farmers such as the Errotaberes will then use to grow a commercial crop. But unlike actual seeds, garlic cloves are perishable and cannot be stored for later planting. Therefore, Sensient has to grow millions of cloves each year, strictly for planting. It takes about 220,000 cloves to plant an acre, Van Elswyk noted.
Most garlic grown in the United States comes from the San Joaquin Valley of California, even though Gilroy is still known as the garlic capital of the world and that Santa Clara County city continues its annual Garlic Festival. Garlic was once a top crop in Gilroy, but significantly less of the pungent vegetable is grown there now because much of the land is infected with white rot, a fungal disease that destroys all allium plants such as garlic, onions, chives, scallions and leeks. Once in the soil, the disease remains indefinitely.
A garlic planter places cloves of garlic, as shown below, into furrows of a field in the fall. Garlic is usually planted from September through November, sometimes overlapping the harvest, which can run from June to October.
Garlic on the go
On the Errotaberes' farm, garlic planting starts in late October and early November, sometimes as the current crop is just finishing harvest. The brothers began growing garlic for Sensient after much of the state's production had left Gilroy and shifted to the San Joaquin Valley, a region renowned for its agricultural bounty.
"We don't get rain from June to the end of September. This allows us to grow a lot of crops that are hyper-sensitive to rainfall, to mold and those kinds of issues," Dan Errotabere said.
But the San Joaquin Valley is also plagued by chronic water shortages, particularly during times of drought. Where garlic used to be a mainstay crop for the Errotaberes, lack of water has forced them to reduce their garlic acreage by half, in spite of the improved efficiencies they have implemented during the years to cut water use: The brothers were one of Sensient's first growers who perfected the use of drip irrigation on garlic, which applies water in a slow trickle directly to a plant's roots, allowing farmers to save water.
"Today, nobody does it any other way than with drip," Dan Errotabere said.
Although China remains the world's No. 1 producer of garlic, Swenson said Sensient's clients prefer California garlic because of the extra steps growers here take with food safety, traceability and environmental stewardship.
For the Errotaberes, garlic works well in their rotation of crops, Dan explained. Because garlic is planted in the fall, it gets much of its irrigation via rainfall during the winter and into the spring. By the beginning of May, the crop no longer requires irrigation. This allows the Errotaberes to devote their water supply to other summer-growing crops.
As garlic matures, its layers of skin fall off. Garlic heads start with 10 to 12 skins and are down to two to three by harvest. Before then, the heads can be "field stored" in the ground until they're ready to be harvested. Garlic destined for dehydration is mechanically harvested, unlike garlic grown for the fresh market that must be harvested by hand to preserve its aesthetic
Errotabere said that with Americans becoming more adventurous in what they eat and cooking shows exposing them to the many ways garlic can be used, the stinking rose will continue to be a popular kitchen staple.
"It can be an ingredient in anything you do," he said. "I don't think you can ruin anything with garlic in it."
Beyond the bulb
The part of garlic that you typically eat is the bulb, which grows underground. The portion that grows aboveground is usually trimmed off by the time garlic reaches your market. But take a look as you separate cloves of garlic and you'll see a section of the plant's stalk, called the neck, still inside. Garlic is classified by characteristics of the neck.
There are different varieties of garlic, but they fall into two main types: softneck and hardneck. What you find in stores—and what gets used in processing—is usually softneck garlic, which has a flexible stalk, making it ideal for braiding. The two most common softneck varieties are California Early and California Late, so named for their growing period.
Unlike softneck, hardneck garlic has a stalk that is very stiff, like wood, and it sends up a flowering stem called scape, which is also edible. The scape is usually cut to allow more energy to go into making larger bulbs. Hardneck varieties include Rocambole, Porcelain and Purple Stripe.
Elephant garlic, which looks like super-sized garlic, is technically not garlic but rather a member of the leek family.
When buying garlic, choices abound for both fresh and dehydrated. On the fresh side, they range from whole heads of garlic to loose cloves that are already peeled. Fresh garlic that's further chopped, crushed or minced—usually packed in oil or water—also is available, as is pickled garlic. Dehydrated garlic also comes in different sizes: chopped, minced, ground, granulated, agglomerated and powdered.