It's hard to believe there was a time when garlic wasn't a staple in the kitchen. Today there are over 600 cultivated sub-varieties of garlic throughout the world. How many have you tried?
All garlic belongs to the genus Allium and the species sativum. The species is further divided into softnecks var. sativum and hardneck var. ophioscorodon.
Garlic originated in central Asia, where they have cold winters and damp springs. Today's hardneck varieties still prefer these conditions and are favored by northern growers. Luckily softneck varieties developed from the hardnecks and are able to be grown in warmer climates.
Hardneck garlic gets its name from the stiff stalks, or neck, of the garlic plants. Hardneck garlic tends to have fewer cloves than softneck varieties, with the cloves circled around a central stalk and rather uniform in size.
Hardneck garlics include three distinct varieties: Rocambole, Purple Stripe and Porcelain
Rocambole: Rocambole is the most often encountered hardneck type and the term 'rocambole is sometimes used synonymously with hardneck. Rocamboles have parchment skins that are quite a bit thinner than softneck varieties. These thin skined bulbs don't store long, but they peel easily. Rocombole garlic is the type you'll see with the distinctive curling, topset scapes that give them the nickname "serpent" garlic. These topsets are called bulbils. Garlic can be propagated from bulbils, but you’ll need to wait two years for the plants to develop. Popular 'Spanish Roja' is a rocambole.
Purple Striped Garlic: Purple Striped Garlic is just that. All purple striped garlic varieties exhibit some stripping, but that's where the similarity ends. Some are very mild tasting and some are extremely pungent. They even mature over a range of times. Two nice varieties to try are 'Starbright', with a kind of nutty flavor and 'Chesnok', which holds up well when roasting.
Porcelain Garlic: Porcelain garlic makes a plump bulb with only a few fat cloves. Porcelains are covered in a very thick outer skin, making them a good choice for storing. 'Georgian Crystal' is at the mild end in flavor while 'Romanian Red' has a hot, lingering tanginess.
Softneck garlic, as mentioned, is well adapted to warmer climates. It is softneck garlic that you are likely to find in the grocery store, because softneck garlic stores and travels better than hardneck.
The two types of softneck garlic you are likely to encounter are: Artichoke and Silverskins
Artichoke: Artichoke garlic is the most commonly grown commercial garlic. It has a couple of concentric rows of cloves and tends to be very difficult to peel. But it produces and stores well and this is what you probably buy at the grocer's. 'Red Toch' is a well-known Artichoke variety.
Silverskins: Silverskins have silvery, white skins and are composed of many small cloves. They also have a nice sturdy neck that is easily braided. The flavor of Silverskins is usually stronger than Artichokes. 'Nootka Rose' and 'Rose du var' are both full bodied Silverskins.