Black garlic

Categories: Product of the week

Fifty day-aged garlic with a rich umami flavour

To say that necessity is the mother of invention might be cliched, but in this line of work, it’s ever-pertinent: some of the most delicious foods were born of necessity—and the black garlic found at Turnips and produced by Mark and Wendy Botwright of South West Garlic Farm in Dorchester is a rather fine case in point.

“We sell dried fresh garlic, the white, paper-skinned bulbs people know, from June until around February. Then we sell out until summer, which meant we didn’t have any money coming in for six months—I needed a way to preserve it,” Mark explains. Determined to steer clear of chillers or chemical preservatives, he sought to find a tastier way of filling the void. His avid interest in all things garlic led him, quite by chance, to discover a 4,000-year-old Korean preservation recipe, which involves sealing the garlic in earthenware pots and leaving them out in the sunshine throughout the summer. Mark’s job then was to find a viable way of recreating that method over here.

“Initially I got six bulbs of garlic, put them in an old biscuit tin and put it in the bottom of the Aga with a note saying ‘do not open for 50 days’. Lo and behold, when we took it out it was black,” he says. “It wasn’t burnt—it was just how I imagined it was supposed to be, but it was very dry. The challenge was to find a way of cooking it for a long time, but for it to come out soft, squidgy and juicy.” After three years’ experimentation, he had it nailed: black garlic was (re)born.

Black garlic

Sweet and sticky
“I can’t give you the exact conditions, but we use a medium heat and relatively high humidity”—which leads to what’s known as the Maillard reaction. “When the garlic gets to a certain temperature, the sugars and the water and the amino acids start to react with each other—it’s the same process as when you put a piece of steak on the grill and it browns.” Not only does the process give black garlic its characteristic colour, it gives it a flavour profile like no other. “It’s like a super-refined balsamic vinegar, with undertones of tamarind paste,” Mark continues. “It’s sweet and sticky, but then it’s sour as well. It’s not massively garlicky. And it won’t give you garlic breath!” he laughs. “It has so many underlying flavours, which is why cooks and chefs love it so much.”

Each clove is like a little flavour bomb, great for adding to stocks and sauces for instant lift and enhancement: “You know how when you make a chilli con carne, it always tastes better the next day? Black garlic gives it that complexity instantly.” Add a little olive oil to make it into a paste (“just pop a clove out and press the side of a knife down on to it”) and brush it over squash before roasting or spread it under the skin of chicken. “Cook it in the usual way, and that chicken will not be your average chicken—it’ll be like nothing you’ve eaten before,” Mark enthuses. “That really is one of my favourite things to do with it.”

South West Garlic Farm now supplies Turnips with black garlic all year round, filling the gap in Mark’s growing calendar—and providing us with an infinitely useful, evergreen kitchen ingredient. “It’s still early days, I’d say only about six per cent of the population have even heard of it,” he says. “But Turnips have stuck with us, and it’s really popular with their customers. They’ve done us proud.”