Bulbs, Shoots, and Leaves: Pungent Alliums

May 5, 2006

Over the next month, edible bulbs in farmers’ fields will engorge with nutrients and water as their above-ground leaves and stalks begin to lose their green. Like potatoes, Allium plants such as garlic, shallots and onions look pretty peaked by the time their swollen subterranean parts are ready for harvest. But Wallace Condon of Small Potatoes Farm in Lodi began growing Alliums precisely for their un-potato-like qualities.

He was looking for a crop to complement his tubers in the field – something with different pest problems and nutrient requirements, but that stored well and had a relatively high value (a necessity on a three-and-a-half acre farm).

Wally’s foray into the Allium genus began when he planted garlic purchased at his local feed and seed store. He still doesn’t know what the specific variety is called, but it is a type of rocambole, and one of his favorites to this day. Over the years, Wally fell in love with Allium sativum.

Wally begins planting his garlic crop in August. He breaks apart heads he’s saved from the previous year’s harvest which have been hanging in an open-air shed for about four months. The cloves of his tried-and-true varieties, along with a few new ones (either ordered from a catalogue or received as gifts from friends or farmers’ market customers), are planted one-and-a-half inches deep into soil that he has built with great care. Each clove will produce one new head. As shoots emerge from the ground, Wally walks his beds with a scorecard, noting the vigor of each variety. He’ll score them two additional times during the next 8 months: once when they begin to send up flowers, and again after they are harvested. Wally selects new varieties based on a combination of how well they perform in his soil and in the Lodi climate, how productive they are, their flavor, their appearance, and how they fare at the farmers’ market. Few varieties receive high enough scores to become part of his garlic repertoire.

In early spring, stiff neck varieties of garlic send up flower stalks known as scapes. To send the plant’s energy into bulbing instead of flowering, scapes must be clipped and are sometimes sold at market. Wally won’t likely be selling any scapes this year, but Mariquita Farm will. Farmer Andy Griffin estimates a hearty harvest of the tender stems sometime in the next four or six weeks. Elegant and delicious vegetables, the texture of scapes is something like green beans, but they have a mild and pleasant garlic flavor that chefs and home cooks are growing fonder of every year.

Three or four weeks before harvest, Wally deprives his garlic of irrigation to commence the curing process and prevent rot. Once harvested, the plants are given a quick shake to remove dirt, and then bundled and hung to cure for an additional three or four weeks. Not all Alliums, of course, reach such stages of maturity. Green garlic, scallions, spring onions, and chives have all been in the market for months already, harvested in various stages of their development.

One of Wally’s greatest pleasures is taking his crops to the farmers’ market and turning customers on to flavorful and unique varieties. He uses as many adjectives to convey the savory subtleties of each variety as a wine connoisseur uses to describe a favorite wine. Wally’s love for the food he grows, his background as a teacher, and his kind demeanor make a visit to the Small Potatoes stall a cherished and sometimes enlightening experience.