Friday, 22 July 2011

Braiding Garlic

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
Living in a small house, with limited storage options, most of my decor serves the dual-purpose of beauty and storage. I like the look and usefulness of hanging my annual garlic harvest as a decorative braid inside my open pantry. Attention paid to careful harvest and ample curing time, combined with the cooler air of the open closet where my pantry shelves share space with the tank for our well, means I'm still eating from last year's braid (below) as I finish up this year's harvest.

I've never had much luck storing hardneck garlic much past the end of the year, so now grow only my own softneck garlic. After more than 20 years of planting the best ones each succeeding year, I have my own heirloom, perfectly adapted to my own climate. The process starts in late autumn before, when I dig in a layer of compost then plant the biggest, nicest fresh garlic cloves held apart from the harvest just a couple of months prior. Winter snows soon water them in, and by late February the young garlic shoots are up an inch. Then it's just a matter of making sure they get a weekly watering, either from Mother Nature or a few hours worth of soaker hose.

By July, each plant ideally has at least 10 leaves. When the oldest leaf or two is about half dry, as well as the top inch or so of the tips of the rest, I pull the soaker hose away, gently bend the tops down, and let the plants dry in the ground for a week. I then loosen the soil with a shovel and lift each bulb out of the ground, never just pulling by the tops. The neck of the bulb is quite fragile and I want the leaves there to shrink-wrap the bulb instead of breaking.

I lay the garlic on a screen in the deepest shade out in the yard, the leaves of one bunch covering the bulbs of the next. When the dirt has dried enough to rub most of it away, after a couple of days, I clean the bulbs and use scissors to clip the roots off short, rubbing any dirt or rocks out of the center. Each intact leaf forms a layer of protective wrapper around the bulb inside as the garlic cures. The more wrapper layers, the longer the garlic will keep. Since my garlic is decorative as well as useful, I'll sacrifice the top, driest layer to get to a prettier white layer underneath. But only one, maybe two at the most (if that layer has broken at the neck), and then gently scrape any remaining dirt off with a fingernail. The cleaned bulbs, with the outermost wrapping still intact up beyond the neck, are then left outside in the shade for a couple more days. I want the stems limp but not crackly-dry.

Big bulbs last longest. I use my garlic braid from the bottom up to keep it looking nice as it hangs in my pantry. So I start my braid with three of the smallest bulbs. Braiding with the bulbs on top, I just add in another bulb whenever there is room. The stem being added in is always added to the center of the braid, so that a section immediately crosses over it, locking it into place. When adding a bulb to either side, its stem is added to the top of the bunch that have just been crossed over to the middle.

Occasionally, as the bulbs get bigger, I might have to make a couple of filler passes of the braid alone so that each bulb will have enough room for good air circulation all the way around. As I braid, I'll run my hand up each section periodically to crunch the crispy dried leaf tips away. It keeps the braid from getting too crunchy to work with, and will mean less mess in my pantry later. When I'm finished, I have a long braid of bulbs, alternating center and sides, with a flat plait on the back that will hang against the shelf support post throughout the year.

I hold out a couple of the biggest bulbs, for planting come October, and finish by braiding to the ends. Bending that over to the back side, I use cotton string wrapped tight and knotted, then criss-crossed tightly up and down the top section to bind it, then knotted again, and finally the ends tied into a hanging loop. I'll leave this year's braid hanging in the open cutout between kitchen and living room, where there's warm and gentle air circulation, for another month. The wrapping layers dry, the necks shrink, and the braid stays strong enough to hold the weight. This year, from a patch 2.5 x 4 feet, I have a 2.5 foot braid, just short of 5 pounds, of 40 nice garlic bulbs. I'll use up the twelve left from last year first, cooking, canning and pickling, plus the few bulbs that were too small or with necks too weak to braid. For the two of us, a bulb a week throughout the year is just about right.