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(Photo Credit: Victoria Caruso)

If you walk through the produce section of the grocery store, you’ll likely come across a crate of white bulbs generically labeled as ‘garlic.’ Though many supermarkets often sell just one type of garlic, there are many varieties grown, each with their own unique flavors and uses. 

For growers and garlic enthusiasts on the North Fork, this pungent plant is used for more than just seasoning. From garlic ice cream to raw garlic tastings, this guide will help you to navigate the different varieties of garlic grown and the way they are used and celebrated on the North Fork.

Hardneck vs. Softneck — what’s the difference? 

(Photo Credit: Victoria Caruso)

Garlic can be divided into two main subspecies: softneck and hardneck. It’s separated into these categories based on features like its hardiness, ability to develop flower stalks and number of cloves. 

Hardneck garlic can be distinguished by its scape — a long, wood-like stem that produces a flower of mini bulbs. With fewer cloves per head, it tends to be more flavorful than softneck garlic and is easier to peel. Softneck garlic, on the other hand, has a soft, grassy stem and a longer shelf life, which is why it’s the type of garlic most commonly found in supermarkets.

While both subspecies are grown on the North Fork, you’re more likely to come across hardneck garlic, as they fare better in the Northeast’s colder climate. 

Within the hardneck and softneck categories are a handful of other garlic types, and from those, there are over a hundred garlic strains. 

Distinguishing taste 

At Biophilia Organic Farm, Phil Barbato hangs his garlic in an old stable to cure (Photo Credit: Victoria Caruso).

Biophilia Organic Farm Owner Phil Barbato has been growing several garlic varieties for over twenty years. Each year, he plants around 7,000 cloves in the ground. 

“It’s like tasting wine,” he said. “You have to pay attention.” In an old stable that he uses for garlic curing, he keeps a flavor cheat sheet that categorizes his garlic by spiciness and intensity of flavor.  

“Some of them are kind of gentle, and some are really garlicky,” he explained. “Another way of describing it is on how hot it is — some are extremely mild, and others are like ‘whoa.’”

Those looking for something sweet and spicy should try Italian Purple — a softneck variety with a medium garlicky flavor. For something spicy, consider German Red, a hot and full bodied hardneck garlic. Music is also a spicy hardneck, popular among chefs and growers because of its richer flavor. Named after a tobacco farmer who first introduced the variety to Canada, it’s the type of garlic that Barbato grows the most. Garden of Eve Organic Farm & Market also grows an abundance of this variety. 

“They’re very hardy — they grow really well here,” explained Owner Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht. 

At her farm, she also sells German White, a Polish softneck, and Elephant Garlic, which is technically not garlic. Belonging to the leek family, these enormous bulbs have a mild, onion-like flavor, and are often used more as a vegetable than an herb. 

The case for local garlic  

Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht holding Elephant Garlic at Garden of Eve Organic Farm & Market (Photo Credit: Victoria Caruso).

According to the USDA, most of the garlic in the US comes from China. 

“By the time they bring it over and you see it in the store — it’s old,” explained Kaplan-Walbrecht. 

Garlic growers on the North Fork will tell you that the flavor of store-bought garlic doesn’t hold up to locally grown garlic. 

“The variety that they grow is a very mild, flavorless variety,” she said. “When you get fresh garlic, it’s just so much more pungent, and fresh tasting.”

By shopping locally, consumers not only have more choice of flavor, but a greater understanding of the environment that the garlic was grown in. Imported garlic is often heavily bleached to remove soil stains, while local farms like Garden of Eve and Biophilia Organic Farm grow garlic that are free of chemicals. 

Using garlic  

Photo Credit: Victoria Caruso

Nearly every culture in the world has found a way to use garlic. Though most dishes call for its cloves, the entire plant can be consumed. Garlic scapes, for example, can be roasted. Bulbils — the flowering part of the scapes — can be pureed into a pesto.  

Because of their flexible stems, softneck garlic are great for braiding. “That’s my annual artistic expression,” said Barbato, who braids garlic for decoration and easy access in his kitchen. Those who’ve reached their arts and craft quota for the year can purchase pre-made garlic braids from Herricks Lane Farm in Riverhead. 

Dating back to ancient times, garlic has also been valued for its medicinal properties. With the ability to boost immune systems, stabilize blood sugar, and support heart health, these cloves pack a powerful punch. 

“Just eat it raw — you get the full benefit that way,” said Barbato, who prefers to eat his garlic uncooked and freshly peeled. 

“I’ve used it with my kids against ear infections,” said Kaplan-Walbrecht. “Put the garlic in a bit of oil and smush it, and then you can just ear drop it into your ear.”

Kaplan-Walbrecht says she has also used her garlic as an organic pest repellent. “Because it has antibacterial properties it actually can help with foliar diseases or leaf fungus on some of the vegetables,” she said. 

Celebrating Garlic on the North Fork

Long Island Garlic Festival at Garden of Eve Organic Farm and Market 

Every year, for two weekends in September, Garden of Eve Organic Farm and Market becomes a garlic lover’s paradise. This year marks the farm’s 20th annual Long Island Garlic Festival. It’s a time where garlic finally gets to be the main attraction, with garlic eating competitions, garlic cooking contests, and garlic inspired food like garlic jellies, garlic soup, and pickled garlic.

German White and Elephant Garlic at Garden of Eve Organic Farm and Market (Photo Credit: Victoria Caruso).

One annual staple of the festival is garlic ice cream made from scratch by local Snowflake Ice cream Shoppe. The shop’s owner, Stu Feldschuch, invented a chocolate-based and a vanilla-based garlic ice cream exclusively for the festival.  

“It’s a big ordeal for us at the store,” said Feldschuh, who uses a special machine to make this pungent flavor. “My machines will reek like garlic for a month.” 

Attendees of the festival will also have an opportunity to try different varieties of garlic grown across the North Fork.  “We always try to make sure that there’s a lot of different varieties of garlic available for people to buy, because a lot of people don’t even realize that there’s more than one kind of garlic,” said Kaplan-Walbrecht.

Annual Tomato and Garlic Tasting at Biophilia Organic Farm 

Every year, Barbato celebrates his tomato and garlic harvest by hosting a free tasting event during the last weekend of August. 

“People can taste them and vote on their favorite,” he explained. 

Phil Barbato of Biophilia Farms (Photo Credit: Victoria Caruso)

Originally created for his CSA members, Barbato has since opened up the event to the public, inviting people to enjoy his garlic alongside live music and BYO picnics. 

Garlic Contest at Hallockville Museum Farm’s Community Garden 

At the North Fork’s first community garden, a group of growers held their first ever garlic contest this year. Lois Leonard, who helps coordinate the community garden, is no expert gardener, but she found others’ enthusiasm for growing garlic to be contagious.  

“I said ‘hey, why don’t we have a little club?”

For several months, Leonard and her garlic crew tracked their progress, sharing pictures and notes until it was harvest time. Once the group’s garlic had been picked and cured, Leonard arranged a small contest, judging the garlic on qualities like flavor and aesthetics. The winner? Metechi Garlic — a large, hardneck variety with super strong flavor and purple streaks. 

Though the next steps for Leonard’s new club remain unseen, community gardens are a great way to grow garlic and learn from other passionate gardeners. Plots at Hallockville Museum Farm’s Community Garden are available to rent per season and can be reserved on a first-come-first-served basis starting early next year.