Umami-packed black garlic

Enterprising lifestyle block owners have found a ready market for a delicacy that New Zealanders are developing a real taste for.

You may have seen it in a jar, read about it in a cookbook or heard about its supposed medicinal qualities – but perhaps surprisingly, black garlic is not a variety of Allium sativum L. that can be grown.

Black garlic is made in a commercial kitchen where “common” white garlic is transformed into unctuous deliciousness, without acridness or lingering breath on eating.

Popular in Asian cuisines and thought to have originated in Korea, the white garlic is cooked long and slow under controlled temperature and humidity for up to two months, with the Maillard reaction taking place.

Under heat, the sugars and amino acids in the garlic undergo many small, simultaneous chemical reactions, producing caramelisation, new flavours, aromas, and colours.

Black garlic has coveted umami qualities and overtones of aged balsamic vinegar, liquorice, molasses – or Marmite – and, with acclaimed chef Yotam Ottolenghi putting black garlic on his top 10 kitchen must-haves, it’s worth a try. Country spoke to two lifestyle block owners who have turned a passion for black garlic into a viable business.

Make every day gourmet

Jenny Harkerss runs her business Dunsinane's Black Garlic from a four-hectare block southeast of Oxford in North Canterbury.

With Dunsinane’s now a well-established brand among chefs, home cooks and food show attendees, Jenny tirelessly pursues new ways to use black garlic, trialling innovative flavour combinations and looking to expand her current product range.

Jenny formerly grew saffron on a smaller property in Burnham and planted some garlic there to fill a spare 2,000-square metre plot.

When she later heard about black garlic, Jenny’s entrepreneurial spirit kicked up a gear and she spent a year refining her technique.

“The land at our current property is very stony so we graze it rather than grow garlic and instead, source the best Canterbury-grown garlic to keep local provenance,” explains Jenny.

“Producing garlic at scale is best left to dedicated growers as it can be a very fussy crop, is susceptible to rust, is a greedy feeder and needs to be moved each year.”

There was not much information available about the process when Jenny first became interested in black garlic around eight years ago, and while this has changed, not many people can commit to the slow and careful process that needs to be adhered to.

“Preparing the garlic is very labour intensive and requires careful selection of cloves to ensure a quality end product.”

Today, sales of Dunsinane’s Black Garlic are driven through the website, local fetes and markets, local and national food shows, and other community expos.

“There’s nothing quite like getting in front of people, because black garlic on sight alone may not appeal so I have to get people to taste it.

“Everyone seems to get something different on the palate – black garlic is very complex, and people taste Marmite, liquorice, tamarind or balsamic.”

At home, Jenny bakes black garlic and camembert in puff pastry, adds it to mashed potato, serves it with lamb, poultry or fish and even incorporates it in sweet dishes.

“I’m currently trialling black garlic chocolate, and it’s amazing in an upside-down pineapple cake and even ice cream.”

Part of an artisan community

Black garlic devotees Teena and Noël Jelsma run their Neudorf Black business from Tinaku Farm, a five-hectare property in Upper Moutere, around 40 minutes from Nelson.

Renowned for its ancient clay gravel soils, this enclave of the Nelson-Tasman district is home to the Moutere Collective of artisan growers and producers which includes Neudorf Black, Neudorf Vineyards, Neudorf Olives, Neudorf Mushrooms, and Thorvald Cheese.

The Jelsmas were living in Singapore when they bought the property sight-unseen in 2016.

“It was mostly flat bare pasture with a house, old tobacco drying sheds, small hazelnut and olive groves, heritage apple trees, and a small vineyard which we have since removed,” says Teena.

“We wanted to add value to the property, make it productive, and support the local community.”

Ultimately, it was the taste they’d acquired for black garlic several years prior that dictated the production path they’d take.

“We first tried black garlic through a small producer at the Nelson Market in 2014.

“In December 2019, that producer was closing up shop so we bought his equipment and recipe, recognising that black garlic production could be done from our property.”

As newbies to the food industry, they already faced a steep learning curve, but then just three months into the business, New Zealand went into lockdown in March 2020.

“That provided a ‘kick in the pants’ to get our website active and since then, we’ve also been getting our puree, essence and oil to specialty grocers throughout New Zealand.”

The Jelsmas buy New Zealand garlic from trusted growers in Blenheim. They prepare the black garlic in a local commercial kitchen, and are in the process of building their own processing facilities in a shed on their property.

“Good water access is needed to grow large quantities of garlic, but Moutere Hills is a dry area and the proximity of existing bores prevents us from sinking our own,” explains Teena.

“With lots to learn about production, compliance, sales, marketing, and distribution, it makes sense to buy the garlic in so we can focus on the business.”

The Jelsmas cook the unadulterated garlic for six weeks, letting it slowly caramelise from white to black.

“Once cooked, we turn it into puree or paste and our unique process allows us to collect the concentrated juice which we call Black Garlic Essence – the easiest way to add deep flavour to any dish.

“The biggest challenge to selling black garlic is education as most people haven’t heard of it, let alone tried it, so we’re at the Nelson Market each weekend offering samples and finding that most fall in love with the deep, rich, and sweet flavours like we did.”

With international borders remaining shut for now, and mainstream supermarkets requiring scale, domestic tourists through Nelson Market have been the Jelsmas’ window into specialty grocers or delis around New Zealand that could stock their products.

A number of restaurants around the country also use Neudorf Black puree and essence and Teena says there are a myriad of ways to incorporate the magic ingredient into everyday dishes at home.

“Try it as part of a cheeseboard, on toast with avocado, stirred through scrambled eggs, in a stir fry or pasta sauce, or in dips.”

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