Recently, I came across a sort of garlic festival that happens in Elk Rapids.
It’s really an auction, where you can taste different kinds of garlic and then bid on your preferred variety. There’s even a competition, where judges pick the Best of Show.
Just how many different kinds of garlic are there?
“I’ve never looked it up, but there’s gotta be thousands,” says Eric Patterson, chef and co-owner of The Cooks’ House in Traverse City.
He’s one of four judges who will decide the winner of this year’s garlic fest which takes place Saturday night.
To get a sense of what judging garlic is like, I went to The Cooks’ House where the initial rounds of judging took place earlier this week.
Jeannie Voller is with Crosshatch Center for Art and Ecology, the group that puts on the event. She passes a plate with thin slices of garlic around to the judges.
“You can just grab a sliver and I’m going to read you about the varietal characteristics,” she instructs.
This year, 12 different varieties were entered into the competition. All of them are grown in northern Michigan, and without pesticides.
Over the course of two days, the judges will narrow the garlic down to their top six varieties. Those six will then be judged at the garlic auction on Saturday. Afterwards, all of the garlic varieties entered will be up for auction.
The judges rate the garlic on a scale from one to ten. The criteria they consider are appearance, varietal characteristics, and then how it tastes— both raw and roasted.
Lee Michaels is vice-president of operations at Cherry Capital Foods. He’s another judge. After his first bite of a silverskin garlic, he admits it’s pretty hot.
“Pretty strong on the raw, but I need to really compare it to the other ones to really know if it’s as spicy as I think it is.”
In between the rounds, the judges guzzle water, and eat a bit of bread to help cleanse their palettes.
“I feel bad, I don’t want to breathe on anyone but I think it’ll be the same if you do it to me,” says Matthew Durren, the Executive Chef at Interlochen Center for the Arts, who is also a judge this year.
Besides using plenty of bread and water to refresh his taste buds, Matthew strategically chooses where he puts the garlic on his tongue.
“I tried to go back and forth,” He says. “Obviously garlic can be real hot, and we had some hot ones. And it was definitely a good thing that I was going back and forth.”
Back in the kitchen, Eric Patterson prepares the next variety of garlic. He breaks open the bulb, and then starts to slice.
“You want to go pretty thin, otherwise it’s just too much for the palette,” he says. “Especially when you’re trying it raw like this, you don’t want to go too thick.”
Eric says garlic is like saffron. "Too much could be a bad thing for a dish," he says. "For the most part, garlic should be there to enhance flavors." He says it's used similarly to how onions are used— to carry flavors, and make them linger.
When roasted, the garlic becomes gooey. Some of the judges eat it with a spoon— others spread it on bread, like butter.
Lee Michaels says he’s struggling with balancing his personal tastes with how a specific variety should taste.
“I’m trying to keep it about the description, but obviously I have my perception of what garlic should be,” he explains. “I probably lean towards the more intense flavors, especially after roasting.”
People who come to the festival on Saturday can try the different varieties of garlic for themselves, and even keep their own scorecards.
Jeannie Voller says some folks even come to buy the garlic for seed for next year.
“It’s great to eat, it’s great to cook with, but we also need it to grow,” she says. And so people will want to purchase the garlic so that they can get it in the ground before Halloween and then it will be ready for next year.”
The garlic auction is a benefit for Crosshatch Center for Art & Ecology. Jeannie says the proceeds will go towards sustainable agriculture programs.