What is “hardneck” Garlic?

 
 

History

As early as 10,000 years ago, hunter-gatherer civilizations in the region of what is known today as south-central Asia harvested wild garlic for a variety of food, medicinal, and religious uses. Its light weight probably made it easily transported with these semi-nomadic tribes. This wild garlic was small in size, grew a flowering seed stalk (much like an onion) and had a robust flavor which was prized by many early civilizations. Over the years, this wild garlic was grown by inhabitants of these rugged, high-mountain areas. Eventually, the wild garlic was transported along ancient trade routes into the Mediterranean area where it is believed, over centuries of cultivation, to have developed into a subspecies more adaptable to the warmer climates and growing conditions. This new garlic did not produce a hard seed stalk, but was larger in size, more productive per acre, had more growing vigor and hardiness, and stored longer than its wild parent. Unfortunately, what it gained in ease of growing, it lost in flavor.
 

Two Types

This, then, is how we come to have two subspecies of domesticated garlic. Allium Ophioscorodon is the half-wild garlic and is better known as “Ophio” garlic. This is the rarer, more flavorful garlic which still produces a hard flower stalk (or scape) and is commonly called “Hardneck” or “Topset” garlic. The majority of the garlic commercially grown worldwide, however, is Allium Sativum, which does not produce a scape and is commonly called “Softneck” garlic. This is what is commonly available in grocery stores and dehydrated as a flavoring. It is curious how, with such a long history, even most garlic enthusiasts don’t know there are two different subspecies of garlic with very different characteristics and tastes. For a wonderful detailed history of garlic, I recommend Ron Engeland’s book “Growing Great Garlic” which can be ordered through www.amazon.com.
 

Harvesting

Hardneck garlic still really only thrives in growing conditions reminiscent of ancient times in harsh cold climates. Although growers have managed to improve the size of the individual bulbs with rich soils and plentiful moisture, these rare jewels still remind us that to get a truly priceless taste out, there are sacrifices to be made. Unlike commercial garlic operations, our hardneck garlic is hand planted to assure that each clove is planted at exactly the right depth and, more importantly, right side up (softnecks are so vigorous that they’ll grow great even when planted upside down!). Hardnecks also do not compete with weeds nearly as well as their softneck cousins, so each bed is weeded religiously to assure each bulb is getting all the nutrients it needs. In the springtime, all the scapes are clipped off to promote healthy bulb growth and large size. These scapes are also prized by garlic enthusiasts and gourmet chefs as they can be used just like green onions but have a wonderful garlic taste instead! Hardnecks also “bruise” easier (Yes - garlic actually gets cuts and bruises) so hand harvesting is a must. And, since hardneck varieties generally only store an average of 4 - 6 months, they are usually considered a “seasonal” or “fresh market” crop.


All the hard work is quickly forgotten, however, when it comes to what they give back in taste. Hardneck garlics are very similar to wild garlic in flavor and, like fine wines, the rare Ophio garlic varieties have a more robust flavor than their softneck cousins. They can range from a relatively mild taste, which softly lingers on the taste buds, to a spicy and hot flavor that could make you sizzle on a winter night in Siberia! On the other had, most softneck flavor tends to be overpowered by their hot taste.


Newcomers to hardneck garlic are also always pleasantly surprised to find how easy the cloves of most varieties are to peel. And, because Ophios are technically designed for flower production, rather than clove production (like the softnecks), the individual cloves tend to be fewer in number but larger in size. Nothing is more sumptuous than squeezing a big, fat, juicy, roasted clove of garlic over fresh bread.


Because this versatility makes them perfect for everything from light salads to full-bodied main courses, they are sought out by gourmet chefs and garlic connoisseurs around the world who find “seasonal” specialty dishes using their favorite varieties a perfect way to transition into the warm tastes of fall and winter.