The Pungent Smell of Success

Al Picketts’ Eureka Garlic is used across Canada

Sit down with Al Picketts for a conversation about garlic, it doesn’t take long to discover that his wealth of knowledge about this flavourful vegetable is abundant, and he is more than happy to share it with those who are interested.
A beekeeper for 30 years, Picketts started Eureka Garlic out of an interest in simply adding garlic to his own garden crop. He made a rookie mistake and planted the crop in early July from garlic that he got from the grocery store. “I made every mistake possible…it didn’t grow. So I started looking into it, what am I doing wrong here,” he said. That initial failure brought him to research garlic growing and he adapted what he learned to his next crop. Now, nearly 20 years later and many more seasons of lessons, he supplies seed and eating garlic to farms and consumers across Canada.

Al Picketts, garlic farmer                                                       Photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

You can find Eureka Garlic on Route 2, outside Kensington. And yes, the pun in the name is fully intended (just sound it out!). The farm is in full swing, both processing the harvest from August and getting ready to plant next year’s crop. The labour-intensive nature of this crop is substantial. “It’s a lot of work, a tremendous amount of work, a lot of labour, a lot of work,” Picketts said. “We plant by hand, we weed by hand, we harvest by hand, we clean and grade and size all by hand. You don’t see machinery here, other than a lot of fans.” Considering that the farm plants over 100,000 garlic cloves each fall with over 50 varieties, the amount of labour involved in producing Eureka Garlic’s crop is huge.

Those cloves are planted on an acre of land, and the farm uses natural, sustainable practices to keep the soil healthy and fertile. By planting cover crops of buckwheat and tilling it under, pests like wireworms are controlled. Fields are rotated yearly, as Picketts has discovered that his soil practices allow him to plant garlic on the same spot every second year.

The farm uses local compost from the mushroom plant in Hartsville, “I used to go over to the mushroom plant and they’d put a scoop on the back of my pickup truck, and that would pretty well do the whole job. Now I order in five tractor trailer loads and I use that all up in one year,” Picketts said. The compost is purchased a year in advance to allow it to further break down before being incorporated into the fields along with mussel compost. Over the years Picketts has learned that “if you’re not generous enough with your soil amenities, it’s going to be reflected in your crop.”

Along with compost, Picketts supplements the soil with bonemeal, lime, and sulphate of potash. A straw cover protects the garlic from freeze and thaw cycles, keeps weeds down, and it keeps the soil moist.

The farm develops its own garlic varieties Photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

As he has grown the business, he has also developed his own varieties of garlic (at last count there were 14), and each begins with the name ‘Eureka’ and then a person’s name, so you can find ‘Eureka Amie’, ‘Eureka Kim’, and other family members’ names among the garlic varieties they grow and sell.

The farm is run by Al, his wife, Kim Knight-Picketts, and his daughter Amie, who joined the team a few years ago, making it a family affair.

Kim Knight-Picketts helps bring in the August harvest Photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

Al is the resident ‘expert’ (though he is loath to hold that title) on the farming side, Kim deals with shipping and HR as well as all other aspects of the farming, and Amie works side-by-side with each of her parents, both in the fields and in the office. This year the farm also employed three full-time and one part-time staff.

Picketts grades the garlic by size, and then the bulbs move on to employees who clean and grade the garlic bulbs by hand, using simple tools like toothbrushes to remove any dirt. The perfect ones will be sold for seed and the not-so-perfect bulbs are kept to be sold for eating.

Paul Kiggins, Amie Picketts, Justin Young, and Al Picketts process garlic Photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

“Eating garlic is any garlic that’s edible that does not grade seed quality. So if the bulb is misshapen or the wrong size, or maybe got damaged, it’s still very edible, but I would never sell it for seed. The end result is my eating garlic is the cheapest garlic that I sell,” Picketts explained. “There’s an old saying in the garlic business, ‘you plant your best and eat the rest.’”

One final selection is when bulbs (usually of the Rocambole variety) are set aside to create Eureka Garlic’s well-known black garlic.

Black garlic is, simply put, slow roasted garlic. Slow, as in 21 days.

Three weeks at a low temperature and controlled humidity (Picketts isn’t about to share the exact details—trade secrets and all), the resulting bulbs are sought after by chefs, artisan producers, and discerning diners. The flavour of a black garlic bulb is unique, sometimes described as having a date- or prune-like flavour, with hints of chocolate and the sweetness of balsamic vinegar all rolled into one. Eureka Garlic’s product is remarkably smooth and not gummy, a trait that has not been traditionally associated with other black garlic bulbs. It is believed that the first black garlic bulbs were produced in Asia and they have been used in Asian cuisine for centuries, but it’s only in the past decade that the North American food scene has become interested in this subtly flavoured ingredient.

Derrick Hoare, chef and owner of The Table Culinary Studio in New London, PEI, has been a proponent of Picketts’ black garlic for years and uses it extensively in his kitchen. It all started with incorporating the garlic into his potato bread recipe, “We loved it, and people loved it, so it’s been pretty much served [with] every dinner for the last three years, black garlic potato bread has been a staple for us. So then it went from black garlic potato bread into black garlic butter and we made a commitment here, to ourselves, that we would incorporate black garlic into every dinner that we serve, in some way, shape or form.”

That commitment means Hoare buys about 50 pounds of black garlic per season. From using it in sauces, on charcuterie boards, as a rub for beef, or in a delicious chocolate cake (which also has beets as an ingredient), the earthy flavour of the garlic is a natural fit for Hoare’s menu. As well, The Table offers a culinary class called ‘Black Gold’, where participants visit Eureka Garlic and then return to the restaurant to learn how to cook with it. It’s also part of his philosophy of “showcasing our neighbours products and trying to really build a little bit of a food community in New London and surrounding areas.”

That sense of community and support for fellow growers is paramount to Picketts’ philosophy as well. Many local vendors purchase his garlic to resell and Picketts is quite happy to not put a premium price, on what is very much a premium product. “The vast majority of my black garlic is bought by other garlic growers, and they’ll take it to the farmers market and sell it alongside their garlic, and I think that’s perfectly fine…I’ve never changed my prices since I started making it, and maybe I should, but I don’t know, everybody seems to like the way it is. And it’s at a point where…the people who are selling it to the customer after buying it from me are making as much of a profit on it as I am. I think that’s great, I really think that’s wonderful.”


Photo credit: Laura Weatherbie/Salty

Plant in late October. If the ground is not frozen, you can plant in November and December.

Plant the best garlic you can, buy your seed garlic locally. Use only healthy cloves.

Garlic are heavy feeders, so supplement your soil with a little bonemeal, lots of compost or manure worked well into your plot. Add lime if your pH is too low (aim for a pH of 7).

Cloves should be planted 4″ deep and 6″ apart. Pointy end up.

Cover your plot with a thick layer of fluffy straw after planting. This is key to keeping the bulbs protected over the winter months. Leave it in place as mulch in the spring, it will keep weeds down and help to retain moisture in the soil.

Remove the scapes in early to mid-July. They are delicious to eat and removing them helps the garlic grow larger.

Harvest your garlic when the two bottom leaves are dead and the third is beginning to die. Depending on the variety, this can be as early as mid July.

Curing garlic requires good air flow around the bulbs—hang them in a dry place. Excess humidity will cause the bulbs to mold or not cure properly. Curing takes about four weeks.

Store garlic in mesh bags hanging in the air, never in an airtight container.

About Cheryl Young

A “Jill of all trades” describes Cheryl to a T. From operating her own handyperson company, to selling luxury cars, to working as a film and TV crew member, her resume is diverse. But her dream as a kid was to be a journalist and she started down that path many years ago at CBC Charlottetown. Returning to her journalism roots, she’s excited to be editing Salty’s content and occasionally writing herself.

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