Digging up the dirt on black garlic

Behind the fading foodie fad is an engrossing tale of intrigue and skulduggery

Digging up the dirt on black garlic

Photograph by Liz Sullivan

It was poised to be the new sun-dried tomato. Black garlic caused a stir two years ago after it caught the imagination of television chefs. Then, a lull. “We were surprised it didn’t take off in our foodie culture,” said Jordie McTavish, executive assistant to chef Mark McEwan, whose Toronto store was one of the first to carry the fermented bulbs. “We still have some, but it isn’t exactly flying off the shelves. This can happen to trendy ingredients like lavender.”

Most Canadians still haven’t heard of black garlic, which is fermented, not charred, and costs between $2 and $3.50 a bulb. Chef Shaun Connell played around with it for about six months, but it was frustrating and expensive. “The flavour is mild, so you need to use quite a bit. It doesn’t mince well so it’s hard to incorporate into sauces and it’s really sticky and tedious,” says the co-owner of Sweet Basil caterers in Belleville, Ont. “You can’t afford to have one cook mincing garlic for half an hour. We had no luck with the food processor, either.”

Then there’s the colour issue. Shereen Arazm, a resident judge on Top Chef Canada, says it was a problem: “One chef on the show used black garlic in ravioli, where it turned the goat cheese inside grey. It’s ugly! You should see what it does to risotto.”

Although interest has waned a bit north of the border, Scott Kim and his manager Brian Han say total sales have more than doubled since 2008, when their California-based Black Garlic Inc. started mass-producing and marketing the black bulbs to North America. Kim’s patented process relies on a machine that houses the bulbs for three weeks, during which time the regulated heat and humidity bring out natural sugars and turn the cloves black. Bulbs spend another week on a cooling rack before packaging. “No matter what you’ve heard, black garlic isn’t an ancient food from Korea,” he says. “I created it and have three patents for my proprietary process.”

But the backstory is full of intrigue and accusations of skulduggery. Mario Di Giovanni, owner of the Toronto-based food purveyor Just a Pinch, says his Korean supplier’s family has been fermenting garlic in clay pots since 1896, but Han dismisses that as “bogus.” Di Giovanni says he did his research, and “my guy is real.” Han says clay pots are simply a marketing ploy.

Even Black Garlic Inc. has its non-believers. Paul Pospisil, the largest experimental grower of organic garlic in Canada, says Kim is hiding something. “Fermentation should take longer than a month. He found a shortcut, maybe some kind of blackening and burning process,” says the owner of Beaver Pond Estates in Maberly, Ont. Scott and Han say they were able to shorten the fermentation time from five weeks to three with adjustments to their machine, but won’t say how they do it for fear of copycats.

Black garlic still has its fans, even though it failed to launch in Canada. “It’s simply delicious. I bought it at Loblaw last June and chopped it up in a sandwich with prosciutto. It added another depth of flavour, kind of like balsamic vinegar and molasses,” says Liz Primeau, the Mississauga, Ont.-based author of In Pursuit of Garlic: An Intimate Look at the Divinely Odorous Bulb.

Now Loblaw doesn’t carry it and neither does its T&T Supermarket chain. Selected Sobey’s stores have some, as does Vancouver’s South China Seas Trading Co., where it is one of 5,000 specialty ingredients. “We sell quite a bit of black garlic, actually, about 60 to 70 lb. a year,” said owner Don Dickson. “We include it in cooking classes because nobody knows how to cook it, or anything we sell.”

At the Black Garlic Bistro in Sun Peaks, B.C., 80 per cent of its dishes, including black garlic pumpkin soup and black garlic ice cream, are made with the bulbs. “Most people don’t know what it is, so we bring it out and let them try a clove,” says co-owner Kristin Passmore, who helped create the bistro’s black garlic theme with the previous owner-chef, whom she bought out in 2011. She remains committed to the controversial vegetable. “It’s not over,” she says. “It’s just a sleeper.”

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