I don’t remember a time in my life when garlic was not part of my diet. One of the best cooking aromas must be the pungent scent of garlic gently frying in good quality olive oil. I am very fortunate that my mum cooked with olive oil when I was a child, a time when most mums were still only sticking it in their children’s ears. Similarly, garlic was a culinary delight in our everyday meals and I didn’t give it a second thought until I noticed the lack of it when I had tea (as we called it then) at friend’s houses.
Garlic is my number one favourite ingredient and is one of the big four, one or more of which I invariably use every day (chilli, olive oil, lemons being the other three). From the outset, I have been determined to grow garlic successfully here on North Uist. If you fling it in the ground and hope for the best, you will get results of sorts, but random gardening, as I have found out to my cost with many veggies is a bit foolhardy if you live here. In fact, typical Uist climatic conditions (wind, rain – and persistence of both) mean the weather can be merciless even if you do your green-fingered best.
So, I have been on a strategic programme of growing trials to optimise my garlic growing success. It has taken 4 years of experimenting, but I tentatively consider that I may at last be on the cusp of success. I have tried soft neck versus hardneck, autumn versus spring planting, numerous varieties: Albigensian Wight, Bella Italiano, Solent Wight, Early Purple Wight to name but a few. Comparisons were made in yield and bulb size as well as storage time. I concluded that softneck garlic produces higher yields, produce bigger bulbs and more bulbs that are subject to lower losses in the ground than hardneck varieties. Importantly, the softnecks store for significantly longer, in my experience.
Autumn planting is the only way. I have tried 2 early spring plantings (same varieties and harvest year as the autumn planting). One was a dismal failure, the other less so, but still with a yield well below autumn plantings, regardless of variety. I suspect that our relatively mild winters mean that by the time it gets to planting in early spring, the bulbs do not get the period of cold they require to flourish. The star variety is without a doubt Provence Wight, for size and storage. This is now the only variety I grow. Garlic may not grow as large here as it does further south in the UK, but the cloves are intensely flavoured, which is all that really matters if you are a garlic lover.
All butchery out of the way (for now) at last (1 deer, 2 geese, then 2 rabbits), I am hoping to get my culinary life back. Hope springs eternal that weather windows will occasionally fall at weekends so I can get on with some outdoor stuff in the garden too. And so it was with fair weather I spent the best part of Sunday getting my favourite Allium into the ground.
If you like to eat garlic, but do not want to read about the minutiae of growing it, skip to my Roast garlic soup with home made pitta bread recipe.
Preparing the bed
I practice a fairly standard organic rotation. I do not grow entirely organically, but pretty near it. I have given up using 100% organic seed. I am not intending to go for Soil Association accreditation and I was finding it restrictive in terms of varieties (and especially ones that work here), and a bit costly. The soil was depleted after a beetroot crop over the summer (pimple-sized beetroots, embarrassingly small). Hence, the first job was to call one of my neighbours, a local crofter who keeps pigs among other things, to arrange to collect some well-rotted pig manure. Half an hour or so of shovelling and our trailer was full enough to replenish 2-3 raised beds.
After digging a trench in sections along the garlic bed, the manure was dumped at a depth of about 15 cm and the soil raked back over so the garlic can happily dangle their roots into the nutrients as they grow. This was an easy job in these raised beds.
I have worked hard to get a fine tilth, sieving and removing stones, essential if root veg, especially carrots are part of your rotation (although I would not manure a bed that carrots are going into). The soil is very light and free draining and I incorporate a lot of my own compost too for soil conditioning. I also top dress with seaweed over the winter to minimise erosion and to add more nutrients and minerals. Some machair soil was also added to lighten the structure and bring the soil to a neutral pH. Finally, I weed regularly and never stand on the soil surface to avoid compressing it.
Preparing and planting garlic
The 2011 crop was grown from 7 bulbs bought from a commercial grower. I was a bit disappointed by the number of cloves per bulb, which fell short of that promised in the catalogue (20-25 cloves per bulb. I got 15 on average). Some were also very small and this seems to be correlated with small clove development/size. Nonetheless, with no signs of disease, I got 75 healthy bulbs from the crop, about three-quarters were larger than those you can buy in the supermarkets.
This year, I am using part of the crop from last summer’s harvest – my next trial, I suppose. I prepared them by selecting the biggest bulbs from my stored garlic, then selecting the biggest and healthiest cloves from these bulbs. Any that were slightly soft or damaged were kept for cooking, but there were very few. By this time, the light was fading, so being up against it and in trying to be ‘efficient’ I managed to somehow slash the side of my hand with the scalpel while separating the cloves. There was an interlude to deal with the ensuing minor bloodbath and melodrama. More haste less speed, as the saying goes!
I wanted to fill the entire bed with the crop and it took me 14 bulbs to do this, a total of 144 cloves. I always compress the soil slightly with a plank of wood which also acts as a planting guide. Some compression helps the garlic stay put in the wind while the roots get established, since they are planted with the tops just under the surface. Each was spaced about 10 cm apart along the row, each row about 20 cm apart.
Despite the race against the light on a short winter day, I got the planting finished, although admittedly it was quite dark and I had to finish the job with the help of the workshop lights.
Imagine my consternation when I got up the next morning to admire my work in daylight to find the night crawlers had been in. There were cat paw prints across the bed, which I can cope with, but there were also about 35 very neat little holes which garlic cloves no longer occupied. I don’t think it was the cat, but I should have perhaps asked my neighbour to check her cat’s breath… I had my suspicions about the culprit, especially since most cloves were missing at the end near the dry stone wall.
I have known blackbirds to inquisitively pull at the papery tops of the cloves after the first day of planting but I usually see their tracks and the cloves are rejected and left nearby on the surface. No cloves to be seen, or dead blackbirds lying about having choked on the chunky cloves. Being rather trusting, and indeed sticking my head in the sand, I decided to leave it another night to see if the novelty would wear off for the critter (or it might have a garlic overdose). Hardly. Next morning, same again, 15 cloves missing.
I couldn’t sustain losses at this rate and after re-planting 50 cloves – another 4 bulbs, and having a suspicion this was the work of a rodent, I went for belt and braces, covering the crop with environmesh and setting up a tunnel along the wall with 2 rat traps in it. Both measures would protect any birds/cats from the traps and would attract rodents to my bait in the tunnel – prime chorizo – 100% irresistable in my experience. And so it was, my garlic survived intact last night and I found a mouse in one of the traps. These traps are only supposed to spring with the weight of a rat but this was one big mouse (I wonder why?), so it got chorizo, but then its luck ran out. It is always disappointing to have to take this action, but I want to eat my veg, not supplement the diet of an already burgeoning local rodent population.
Before pleating the remaining intact garlic bulbs, I thought it would be a good idea to use up all the small bulbs and loose cloves in one of my favourite soups, roast garlic. Roasting the garlic and adding it to the soup makes it wonderfully sweet. Topping it with dry fried chorizo or cheesy croutons complements the dish with saltiness to balance the sweetness of the roasted garlic. Don’t be put off by the amount of garlic used. It is quite a different animal when roasted in the oven.
2 large garlic bulbs, left whole
2 carrots, finely chopped
3 large potatoes, diced
sprig of rosemary
1 litre chicken stock or vegetable boullion
500 ml milk
salt and pepper
chorizo, enough for garnish, sliced and dry-fried
Set the oven to 180oC
Cut the tops off the 2 garlic bulbs to reveal a bit of white flesh in each clove. This will make the soft garlic easy to squeeze out after roasting. Place them in a foil parcel with a bay leaf and a drizzle of olive oil and bake in the oven for 45 minutes. Leave aside to cool.
Peel and chop the onion, carrots and potatoes and sweat in a pan on a low heat with a small amount of olive oil for 10-15 minutes. Add the garlic by taking the cooled bulbs and squeezing each at the base. The garlic will be soft and should squeeze out like toothpaste. The aroma is wonderful.
Add the stock and rosemary, season and simmer for about 1 hour. Let it cool slightly, add the milk, remove the rosemary then blitz in a blender or puree using a hand-held blender. If it too thick (although I like it thick, as in the photo), add a spot more milk or water. Pass through a sieve or chinois and heat through.
Garnish with parsley and chorizo or cheesy croutons. Serves four.
Home made pitta breads
I served this soup with pitta breads on this occasion. This simple bread regularly features in this house because it is so versatile and easy to make – especially if you have a bread maker. There’s nothing wrong with using a bread maker for dough like pitta or foccacia. It can be a huge time saver. If you have not made them before, give them a try. They are astonishingly straightforward to make and are incomparable with the rubbery, slightly stale, vinegary tasting pitta breads you buy in supermarkets.
I am not sure where I got this recipe, I have been using it for so long.
500g strong white flour
2 tsp yeast (easyblend)
1 1/2 tsp salt
310 ml water
Set the oven to 220oC
If you have a breadmaker, fling everything in and set to dough only program. This takes 45 minutes on my Panasonic SD-255 machine – the only breadmaker I would recommend, having had many others that sat on the shelf due to poor performance. I usually let the dough rest for another half hour once the program stops to ensure light and puffy pittas.
Alternatively, you can mix by hand, incorporating all the ingredients then kneading on an oiled surface for 10 minutes. Allow it to prove for about an hour, covered with cling film in a warm place.
Place the dough on a heavily floured surface and break off golf ball sized pieces of dough with floured hands and roll them into tongue-shaped pittas with a floured rolling pin, to about 3mm thick. It doesn’t matter if they are a bit misshapen – that’s called rustic, or more current still, artisan. Flour a couple of baking sheets and put the bread in the oven for 8-10 minutes. I usually turn them half way. Most will puff up, some won’t but keep an eye on them in case they get too thin and crispy as they puff.
This recipe usually makes 12. I do them in 2 batches of 6, 3 on each baking sheet. I keep the first batch warm under a tea towel however, we usually start eating them straight away if there is some moutabal or hummous to hand and they are best eaten fresh and still warm from the oven.
They will keep overnight wrapped in a tea towel but need to be re-warmed and get a bit chewy if they are allowed to cool.