Farmer and butcher Logan Higger views garlic as a gateway local food.

“Garlic and eggs, everyone uses them. And the differences between garlic or eggs when they are locally produced versus mass-produced elsewhere are pretty evident,” Higger said.

Farm-fresh eggs are richer, have better color and thicker shells and vary more in size than store-bought ones. Locally grown garlic is juicier, spicier and less bitter than garlic from the grocery store, says Higger, who has worked as a farmhand at Salty Dog Farm in Milbridge and Whatley Farm in Topsham, both of which grow garlic. Whatley grows seven types, Salty Dog, nine. After helping to cultivate all of that garlic, Higger is pretty picky about the local garlic he puts into his Sowbelly Butchery sausage.

Americans eat about 2 pounds of garlic per capita annually – maybe for its pungent flavor or maybe because garlic has antibiotic and antioxidant properties and has been linked to reduced cholesterol and blood pressure levels. While California is the largest garlic-growing state, the vast majority of the garlic sold in America comes from China, according to the USDA. In addition to the heavy environmental cost of importing garlic all that way, you also have to worry about the chemicals sprayed on the garlic while it grows and how it is bleached once it is harvested, Higger said.

Local garlic production is on the rise, even if the evidence is only anecdotal at this point, said Dave Fuller, an agricultural and non-timber specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. He headed up The Maine Garlic Project that ran from 2010 to 2013 to spur more garlic production in the state. Not a crop native to Maine, best estimates on how long it’s been cultivated here range between 30 and 50 years. By 2014, about 100 farmers grew over 70 varieties of the stuff. While Fuller does not have more current numbers, he assured me that my noticing more local garlic in Maine markets in recent months was not a matter of wishful thinking on my part.

At the Brunswick Winter Farmer’s Market last week, I picked up six varieties of garlic from four vendors. They ranged in price from $1 per head to $13.50 per pound. I also scored some local garlic at Rosemont Market in Portland for $13.99 per pound, although I could not identify its variety.

“It’s safe to say there are many more folks growing garlic (in Maine) now,” Fuller said. Interest in the classes he teaches on the subject attract more growers than ever before. The UMaine Cooperative Extension established a seed garlic directory to help with the rush of folks looking for seed garlic in the fall.

After it’s harvested in late summer, garlic heads are sorted by size. Smaller or slightly misshapen heads are set aside to be sold for cooking. Farmers keep the garlic bulbs with the plumpest, most uniform cloves for seed. Most garlic is grown via asexual reproduction: You take a single clove, plant it just before the ground freezes, mulch it well, and clear the mulch in the spring in time for the scapes to be grown and lopped off in June. With the perfectly edible and delicious scapes removed, the plant can focus on plumping up the bulb before that’s harvested and dried, either for cooking or for seed garlic, so growers can start the whole asexual propagation process all over again.

Genetically speaking, garlic comes in just two subspecies: hardneck and softneck. Hardneck must be planted by hand and grows best in spots with long, cold winters (sound like anywhere you know?). Hardneck has woody central stalks, hence the name, and a long, looping flower stalk (the scape). Typically, each bulb (or head) has four to 12 large cloves. Hardneck garlic stores well, and is the stronger and more acidic of the two.

Softneck varieties can be planted mechanically (making them better suited for large-scale production, which is why they are what you usually find at the supermarket), lack the flowering scape of hardneck garlic and produce bulbs with up to 30 (much smaller) cloves. While usually sweeter and milder than their hardneck cousins, these varieties have a shorter shelf life.

Garlic genetics is evolving, but scientists today trace all garlic to eight hardneck (Purple Stripe, Marbled Purple Stripe, Glazed Purple Stripe, Rocambole, Porcelain, Turban, Asiatic and Creole) and two softneck (Silverskin and Artichoke) varieties. Each grouping has set traits. For example, Purple Stripe garlic, which is well-suited to grow in Maine, has telltale purple skin and a strong, complex, richly garlicky flavor without being overly sulfurous. But each variety within the grouping has been cultivated for specific traits. Chesnok Red, for example, which falls into the Purple Stripe set, is touted as a fabulous roasting garlic because roasting brings out its sweetness.

Any garlic variety will be further altered by the climate and soil in which it grows, a fact that makes any garlic crop exciting for local eaters, Higger said, comparing it to the effect of terroir on wine production.

Architect and avid gardener Lyndon Keck got the garlic-growing bug about 20 years ago and has been honing his skills in his Cumberland garden ever since. This year he planted 32 varieties. He adds garlic to most cooked dishes and gleans much joy from giving new garlic varieties to friends for them to try and report back on the taste. His favorite is Georgian Crystal, of Porcelain lineage, which has big bulbs, a hearty kick and an earthy undertone.

Years ago, Keck had a colleague who’d emigrated from Poland. She loved garlic so much, he said, she’d hold garlic tastings as social events. To discern the differences in flavor, participants would place thin slices on top of pieces of cheese; roast whole heads and squeeze them on bread; or, mince cloves finely and taste how each would change a standard guacamole recipe.

As a garlic lover myself, that’s my kind of party!

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer and tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]