Copyright © 2008--2016 Ted Jordan Meredith. All Rights Reserved

Isn't Garlic all the same?

Why bother growing garlic? Isn’t all the fuss about different garlics just a fad, an affectation? Why not just buy garlic in the grocery store? And if you do grow your own garlic, why not just grow one kind? Isn’t all garlic really the same anyway? Isn’t garlic just garlic?

Yes, garlic is just garlic, and apples are just apples---except that one finds major differences among the many varieties of apples---and among the many cultivars of garlic. Apple varieties, for example, have a wide range of flavor characteristics and storage properties---and so does garlic. There is a pronounced difference in taste between a Red Delicious apple and a Granny Smith apple---not to mention the differences in shape, texture, and color. Similarly, there are differences in taste and character between, for example, the garlic cultivars Spanish Roja and Romanian Red, or California Early and Shvelisi---and so on. As with apples, some garlic cultivars are similar to others in taste and character, and some vary widely. The differences, especially if we enjoy good food, make a difference in our lives.

Garlic is not all the same. We think of garlic as all the same because we are primarily exposed to only one type of garlic in our grocery stores. If Red Delicious were the only apple we ever encountered, we would think that all apples were the same as well---the character of an apple would be synonymous to us with the character of Red Delicious. What a surprise it would then be if we were suddenly to encounter a Granny Smith apple.

Just as there are different tomatoes, carrots, onions, peaches, and apples, so too, there are different garlic cultivars. As consumer palates become more enlightened, and if the marketplace responds, we may one day have more choices in the grocery store, but for now, nearly all grocery store garlic comes from the same horticultural group, Artichoke, and much of it is even the same cultivar.

In the United States, some four companies produce nearly all of America’s dehydrated garlic, and only a few large shippers account for the majority of fresh market garlic. Grocery store garlic is not chosen by producers and marketers for culinary merit, but for reasons of ease of growing, productivity, and storage. Flavor is not part of the choice, nor, from a growers or marketers standpoint, does it need to be. Customers might complain or go elsewhere if Red Delicious were the only apple available in a grocery store, but “garlic is just garlic” so there are no other choices---or so we had come to understand.

There are hundreds of garlic cultivars in some eleven horticultural groups as well as even more cultivars that do not fall into the existing horticultural groups. The many garlics differ in a number of ways, including physical appearance, taste intensity, taste complexity, number of cloves, size of cloves, ease of peeling, storability, coloration, and so forth.

We have used apples as a comparative metaphor. Are the differences in the taste of various garlic cultivars as apparent as the differences between the taste of a Red Delicious apple and a Granny Smith apple? I would say no. The differences in flavor are probably closer in degree to the differences of flavor one encounters in varieties of carrots, onions, beans, beets, corn, and the like. As with garlic, if we grow these vegetables ourselves, we are much more aware of the flavor differences and choices among the different varieties. We may have a few choices of varieties of these vegetables in the grocery store. We will have more choices at farmers markets, and many more choices if we grow them ourselves. For those of you who have grown some of the finest varieties of pole beans, do you want to go back to commercial bush beans from the grocery store? Those of us who have grown some of the finest Rocambole or Purple stripe garlic cultivars do not want to go back to grocery store garlic either.