John Pye is a man who hates waste. So after 15 years as a garlic farmer, faced with discarding the imperfect bulbs that would almost certainly be rejected by consumers, things were starting to grate.
What to do with all that wasted produce became a preoccupation.
At first, John experimented with smoked garlic, but without much of a market for whole smoked bulbs, he diversified into drying and processing it, then putting it into table grinders.
“I had several flavours, including smoked garlic, rosemary and salt, as well as smoked garlic and chilli, which proved really popular,” he says.
But the lightbulb moment came when he read a small article about a little-known product called black garlic in an inflight magazine during a trip with his wife Mary nearly a decade ago.
With little to go on but those few short paragraphs, John set about learning everything he could about producing this odd permutation of his staple crop.
“Most people think black garlic is grown,” says John, who lives on a 60-hectare farm near Bredbo Village, about an hour south of Canberra. “I get a lot of people inquiring whether they can buy some black garlic to grow, but it isn’t grown, it’s made. It’s normal garlic, fermented.”
It took two years of experimentation, including building his own fermenting machines, tweaking temperatures, timings and water supply, and testing the results time and again until he discovered the formula for the perfect black garlic – a 60-day ferment at a consistent temperature of 60 degrees.
The resulting product is so far removed from its original form in flavour that John reckons you’d be hard-pressed to know you were eating garlic if blindfolded.
It’s hard to disagree. Despite the fact there is nothing at all added to the garlic – “it’s simply a process of getting the right temperature and humidity” – black garlic has a sweet and syrupy flavour, kind of like molasses crossed with balsamic vinegar.
The jet black bulbs can be sliced and eaten with cheese and biscuits, added to sauces for depth of flavour, chopped into a salad, or sprinkled over a Bloody Mary.
“Black garlic is even used in things like brownies and muffins, or icecream, which seems incongruent to the word garlic but because of its sweetness, it can almost be thought of as chocolatey in a way,” says John, peeling back the brown-tinged skin of a perfectly round bulb to reveal his piece de resistance – the single-bulb black garlic.
The solid round bulb is a freak of nature, says John, but can frequently be found among the harvest. Chefs love it, he says, because there’s no mucking around peeling multiple cloves, and its uniform shape makes it easy to slice.
“We do supply a lot of restaurants,” he says. “The chefs are looking for something cutting edge or different, and they know they can get it from me. Black garlic is starting to appear in more and more recipe books now, so a lot of foodies are looking for it too.”
All the garlic John uses is locally grown and organic, sourced from a nearby farmer now that John is focused on the fermenting, not the growing.
Since perfecting the raw product, John has branched out into a number of black garlic-infused condiments under the label Mr Pye’s, from a black garlic caramelised balsamic vinegar, to a black garlic Worcestershire sauce and a black garlic butter that he says is perfect for melting on to steaming hot corn on the cob, cooking with fresh mushrooms or smearing on a steak.
Fellow producers have also got on the black garlic bandwagon, with Tilba Real Dairy on the NSW south coast blending Bredbo Black Garlic with its two-year vintage cheddar to produce the aptly named Garlic Delight, and a salumi maker using it in granule form to infuse his flavoursome version of cabana. There’s even a black garlic beer on the way.
I’m curious to know why there’s a bag filled to the brim with black garlic skins on the workbench in John’s small tin shed that now doubles as one of Australia’s main hubs of black garlic production. He tells me it’s ready to be supplied to a Canberra chef who uses the skins to make broth.
For a bloke who built a new business model through a desire to make sure not a skerrick goes to waste, John’s got to be happy with that.
Bredbo Black Garlic and Mr Pye’s products can be found at EPIC and the Kingston Bus Depot Markets (check COVID-impacted opening times) and select suppliers. For more information go to Bredbo Black.