Newly harvested Rose de Lautrec bulbs, photographed in August. The unattractive brownish specimen on the right is how it looks when it comes out of the ground, but scrape away the outer wrappers to reveal the candy pink underneath.
2008 was a pretty good year for garlic. There was no repeat of the extreme rust attack of 2007 which completely encrusted and killed the plant tops (although the bulbs underground survived and were remarkably little affected). This year there was barely a speck of rust all season. And it was the same planting stock, i.e. this year's healthy crops grew from the bulbs that had been totally rust-stricken the year before. A lesson to be learned there I think, that no matter how bad the rust gets, garlic is irrepressible.
The robustness of garlic is probably an effect of it having evolved over the centuries to reproduce asexually. Having decided it can't be bothered to make flowers or set seeds any more, it relies completely on vegetative propagation, and that gives it an incentive to sprout for all it's worth and to thrive in a huge range of conditions. Another funny thing about garlic and its mega-adaptability is that it can change its flavour and colour from one garden to another, and even in the same garden from year to year. So you can never be absolutely sure what you're going to get. That and its weird requirement to be planted in the cold damp soggy soils of autumn just as everything else is dying off show it to be a plant which likes to do everything arse-about-face.
As usual I grew a few rows of Music, which is still my favourite garlic, unsurpassed for flavour as far as I'm concerned, and a couple of rows of Persian Star and Solent Wight.
In place of flowers, garlic plants produce bulbils. Heads made up of lots of tiny cloves. Although they look superficially a bit like flowers, the most important difference is at the molecular level. A flower creates seeds by stripping DNA apart and reassembling it (meiosis), which is always going to allow some scope for mutation and change, even if both halves of the DNA came from the same parent. Bulbils, however, are reproduced by the simple cell division (mitosis) which is part of the plant's normal growth. The DNA is left intact, so it doesn't change. Bulbils are therefore genetically identical to the plant they grew on.
Unusually plump and purple bulbil cluster on a Music plant, photographed in the summer
Bulbils on Music are usually quite small, but this year one of my plants produced a very different "head" from its companions. Instead of lots of tiny bulbils it had a weird spiky cluster of much bigger ones, and they were rounded and a darker purple in colour. I allowed that one scape to mature and now I have the bulbils saved and ready to replant. I don't know whether these bulbils are any different from the usual ones or whether the plant just decided on a whim to do something eccentric. They should still be genetically identical to the parent, in theory.
The experimental crop for 2008 was Rose de Lautrec, which I blogged about in February. I bought a 12-bulb manouille last November at a French market in Brighton, sold as eating stock rather than for planting. I wasn't wildly impressed with it at the time; it had a beautiful rosy pink colour but the flavour was OK and not quite the gourmet delight it's cracked up to be.
The problem with growing it at home is the Protected Geographical Indication ... if it's grown outside the Lautrec region in France it's not Rose de Lautrec any more. But I was curious to find out what would happen. After all, a PGI is not a Cinderella spell, the cloves don't suddenly turn to ash if you plant them in the wrong country.
I'm very pleased with how it turned out. The plants were healthy, though they were a bit prone to making double sprouts. The bulbs didn't turn out quite as pink as the original stock, but they still had a nice rosy blush. But most importantly, the flavour was better!
Rose de Lautrec is a hot and spicy garlic but loses the heat when it's cooked. With the original bulbs I bought, the heat was quite coarse and intense and would easily overwhelm a dish. And then when cooked it became a bit bland and it was hard to taste it at all. There was quite an art to using just the right amount and cooking it just enough. None of those problems with my homegrown stock though. The hot and spicy trait is still very much there but it's much more rounded and flavoursome, and when cooked it keeps all the flavour and only loses the intensity of heat. So it's easy to cook with and tastes good in everything.
Presumably the stuff I bought in Brighton was not in its prime, and my fresh and lovingly homegrown version is the "real" Rose de Lautrec tasting just as it should ... but ironically it's not Rose de Lautrec at all because it was grown outside its native region. D'oh!
So, now we're in garlic planting season again, all the same varieties are going back in for a 2009 crop, including Rose de Cheltenham which has earned its place in the garden, and I have three new ones to try.
I'm quite excited about these. They are all hardneck types and I got them from the garlic king himself, Patrick of Bifurcated Carrots, when I met up with him in Oxford a couple of months ago.
Dominic's Rocambole is a very elegant and classy garlic. It has such perfect snow white outer wrappers it seems a shame to break it open. The wrapping is actually made up of multiple layers of very thin fine silky parchment. But underneath them all you find the natural colour of the clove skins (shown above) which are a dusky golden cream, lightly streaked with mid pink and the occasional dark pink fleck. The cloves are so silky you can buff them up to a shine. They're extremely large so you only get about four in the bulb. Rocambole garlic is one of the best flavoured types.
Purple Glazer has around six plump little cloves of varying size. It doesn't look anything special with the bulb wrappers on, as the skins are quite coarse and brittle, but if you peel them away the cloves do have a nice purple colour. The best colour is revealed when you break the bulb open, as the purple is dark and intense on the inner parts of the clove wrappers. It belongs to a family of garlics called Purple Stripe.
Cuban Purple is shaped a bit like a water lily in its bulb form. It's a Creole type, which is probably the most exotically beautiful and deeply coloured garlic type. Its adapted to hot climates and not ideally suited to a British garden, but what the hell. It will probably only produce small bulbs here, but I don't mind that. The clove wrappers are silky and a beautiful rich purple with gentle stripes and streaks. My bulb had nine cloves of varying size. They're thin, curved and wedge shaped, not plump like the other two, though that may be partly due to it being grown in northerly climes.