Black gold

Mary MacKay
Published on September 1, 2012
Unlike the typical black garlic which can be gummy or grainy, Al Picketts black garlic is so soft it can be mashed and spread with a spoon.

Black garlic has spun into a golden opportunity for one Prince Edward Island grower.

Al Picketts of Eureka Garlic in Norboro had a true eureka moment last fall when he had his first taste of black garlic, which is a fermented garlic of Korean-origin that is trendy with foodies right now.

So much so that he set out to create his own method of making black garlic using the surplus eating stock from his seed garlic business.

And his first sweet, syrupy, melt-in-your-mouth batch has some in the culinary world taking note.

“It’s an incredible find,” says chef Norm Zeledon of Anne’s Table – Culinary Studio in New London.

“To chefs, black garlic is like a new kind of saffron. This man has been able to make it so that it’s smooth, which is the challenge. All of the black garlic, especially what originated in Korea, is grainy so you cannot put it into a sauce because it gets grains in it. This man in a year developed it so it’s as smooth as it tastes.”

Picketts started growing garlic about 12 years ago as an add-on to his business as P.E.I.’s largest honey producer, which he closed after 15 years in 2003 due to devastating losses in honeybee populations.

For Picketts, the intrigue of garlic was simple.

“I didn’t know anything about it, so I was curious ...,” he remembers.

“So then I started reading about it and I found out there’s a great big world of garlic out there.”

Picketts grows eight types of chemical-free garlic that includes a generous spread of varieties on a half-acre behind his family home.

“What it kind of all boiled down to was I’ve taken 230-odd varieties, boiled it down to maybe 65 varieties that I like that do well, plus I’ve made a bunch of varieties of my own,” he says.

Different traits help Picketts to weed out the unwanted as he works towards developing a new variety.

“I’ve never met a garlic that I didn’t like the taste of, I can’t really see a major difference. Some people do . . . I don’t like talking about taste at all with garlic because to me they all taste good,” he says.

“What I like to talk about is growability, whether it’s going to have a big bulb, whether it’s going to have big cloves or little cloves. Nothing is more exasperating than a small bulb with little slivery cloves in it. What can you do with that, unless you’re a person who only wants a little taste of garlic. That’s not me.”

At present, Picketts has 13 varieties that he has coaxed along to the point where he’s given them permanent names.

“To make new names, I start with the word, Eureka, and then put in a family member,” says Picketts, whose most recent garlic namesake was his brother who now lives on in Eureka Clifford.

“I’ve got a big family so I could keep naming garlic for ages,” he adds, laughing.

While selling seed garlic was Picketts’ mainstay, there was always loads of extra garlic that did not meet his standards for seed that make excellent eating garlic.

So he’d sell by the pound or in bulk.

The rest he would peel by hand, slice and dehydrate into garlic pearls and powder.

Things took a new turn last fall when a friend who had travelled to Paris picked up two bulbs of black garlic at his request.

“I peeled out one clove and where garlic cloves are white as white, these were black as your boots. Where garlic raw is quite strong and biting, it really lets you know it’s there, this was just like eating candy. It’s delicious . . . ,” he says.

“I said, ‘how much did this cost?’ and she said, ‘Seven euro.’ That’s $15 for two little bulbs of garlic. I said, ‘I’ve got to learn how to make this!’”

Being a consummate do-it-yourselfer, he decided to try his hand at creating his own method of making black garlic.

“I like to try to invent stuff myself,” he says.

He tried making it in an old refrigerator with high wattage light bulbs, but the heat penetration wasn’t equal throughout.

So he shifted gears. He threaded copper piping throughout a refrigerator, hooked it up to a hot water heater and through some tweaking finally got the temperature to the desired level for fermenting black garlic.

His first batch that he had on the go during that whole process took three months, but he estimates he should be able turn around this year’s first crop of black garlic in three weeks.

“(Last year) I ended up with about 160 pounds of black garlic and I was giving it away, sending samples all over the place,” he says.

His nephew was travelling to Alberta so he sent him off with some Eureka black garlic and by circumstance it fell into the hands of a person who makes garlic-based sauces and dips.

That person took pretty much all that Picketts had and is on his waiting list for more.

“When you make black garlic not only does it make the taste totally, totally different — I can’t taste garlic in it at all — the taste is beautiful, but the health benefits are doubled from white garlic. There are double the antioxidants in black garlic,” Picketts says.

One of the complaints about typical aged black garlic is that its chewy texture makes it difficult to incorporate into sauces.

“A lot of them from the Korean market — you couldn’t mash them, they’re too gummy. You take a knife and try to chop it up, it’s like chopping up jujubes, you can’t do it easily. They stick to the knife, they stick to everything,” Picketts says.

“And this is what most of the chefs are complaining about: ‘We love the taste but how do you handle the thing?’ ”

Picketts’ black garlic is moist and so soft that a clove can be squished between one’s fingers and the garlic spread smoothly onto or into whatever one’s culinary heart desires.

“There are only four producers in North America that can (make black garlic), besides Korea.

“None of them have been able to get it smooth,” Zeledon says, “and we have it in P.E.I.”