Alert the breath mint industry: it’s garlic season. Right now, local garlic plants are completing their growing cycle and fresh-from-the-field garlic is at its peak.
I love it at this stage, when it can often be obtained with the long stems and leggy leaves still attached, great globs of dirt clinging to the roots — and the moisture within the bulbs all but oozing out.
Considering the fact that garlic has been growing all over the world for thousands of years, the vast number of horticultural varieties is not surprising. Nor is the fact that you can’t get all of the horticulturists to agree on exactly how many varieties exist. Estimates range from 30 to more than 300, with many authorities insisting there’s no real definable way to distinguish between most of the different varieties, even though they might differ from one another in very specific ways, such as flavor, color or clove orientations within the heads.
To complicate matters further, exactly the same variety is often known by a wide range of common names. Just as the same cut of beef is a filet mignon in New York City and a Chateaubriand in San Francisco, exactly the same variety of garlic may be grown and known by several common names in different countries.
The exception to this rule seems to be the botanical variety called Ophioscorodon, commonly known as rocambole, or serpentine garlic, It’s quite distinctive in construction, so you will know if you’ve ever encountered it. The cloves are much plumper than your average garlic clove, and they’re arranged around the flower stalk much like the segments of a tangerine. So the cloves are easily separated from the main head.
The “serpentine” description comes from the rocambole’s coiled, looping stems, scapes. Aside from the fact that it’s a garlic of wonderful cooking quality, it’s exotic appearance makes it a marvelous addition to your backyard vegetable garden. However, you will rarely find it in nurseries under its botanical name; the key description to look for is “top setting,” a phrase that refers to the fact that after the light purple buds fade, a cluster of baby bulbs, known as bulbils, develop. If left on the plant, they can actually be used to propagate the next season’s plants. In nurseries, they are often sold as “rocambole seeds,” which they aren’t because true seeds are seldom produced by this plant.
Of course, any fresh garlic heads will suffice in the following recipes.