Turning Black Into Gold: Ribbon Road Farm's organic garlic treasure chest
Black garlic has been described by the Japanese as umami, which translates as having a pleasant savory taste. Despite being used for hundreds of years in Korean and Vietnamese cultures, it remains widely unknown in the United States, save for a handful of chefs, foodies and consumers who have been won over by its versatility and taste.
If left up to Alan and Kathleen Ramm – with the marketing assistance of their son Kit – from Ribbon Road Farm in Sherman, that may soon change.
The Ramms have grown garlic on their 50-acre farm since 1999 and have been Certified Organic by the National Organic Farming Association (NOFA) since 2005. Today, they produce nine varieties of organic garlic yielding between 10,000-15,000 pounds a year, including softneck, hardneck and elephant varieties. Chefs and others have lauded their garlic as having a distinct flavor arising from the unique growing conditions, harsh winters and soil conditions in western New York, as well as the Ramms’ expertise in feeding the soil with garlic-loving organic materials such as buckwheat and clover for nitrogen and pelletized chicken manure.
Garlic farming in Sherman at first appears to be an unlikely foray for a couple that had been living and flourishing in South Africa, where Alan was working as a university professor and oceanographer. Originally hailing from western New York, the Ramms found their way back home after the political environment in the country they had grown to love became increasingly unstable. Prohibited to leave with their assets, they used the funds from the sale of their home to build a sailboat that would take them on an 8,000-mile journey back to the U.S. in 1997.
They settled on the family farm located between Sherman and Westfield. Alan explains, “I remember [my grandfather] always grew a couple of rows of garlic around his garden to keep the animals out.” Soon, Alan started growing garlic as a hobby. “It grew so well that other people started wanting it and the hobby got out of control.”
A trip to Ribbon Road Farm is a new experience for those strictly accustomed to the porcelain white garlic typically found in grocery stores. According to Alan, this common variety is usually cultivated in California or China. It doesn’t produce scapes, flower buds that can also be used in cooking, which makes it easier to grow and harvest. Ribbon Road grows varieties including Tosh, hailing from the Republic of Georgia, Duganski, Inchelium, Chesnok Red, and Music, as well as Romanian and German garlics – considered among the best in the world.
Although familiar with purple, red and white varieties, Alan was stumped when a buyer from Wegmans asked him if he “grew” black garlic. Curious, he did some research and found out that black garlic is actually produced from a conversion process using time, temperature and humidity, sometimes erroneously thought of as fermentation.
Ready for an opportunity to develop a secondary profitable product, the Ramms began their black garlic education. According to Alan, it is produced in only four or five other places in the U.S.
As a chemical engineer, Alan states, “I figured, how hard can it be [to make]?” He went online to learn all he could about the process. “What I found out was that it was very hard … I knew you had to keep it somewhere between warm and boiling, and it’s got to start humid.”
Initially, Alan experimented with garlic bulbs sprayed with water wrapped in a double layer of tinfoil and placed in a CrockPot. “We let them go and the smell was so overwhelming that we had to leave the house.” The worst part was that the final product was bitter and inedible.
Like Goldilocks looking for the perfect bed, the black garlic could sometimes be too dry and sometimes too wet – variables that could have as much to do with how the garlic came out of the ground as the processing techniques.
Alan eventually perfected his technique by using data logging to track humidity and temperatures every 15 minutes. He altered and rewired baking equipment for production, processing the garlic for three to four weeks followed by cold storage for two to six weeks. “We try to keep it in cold storage for at least six weeks before it goes to the customer. It’s a little like wine: When it ages, it develops more complexity with the characteristics that you want.” A process Kathleen jokingly refers to as “more demanding than a mistress.”
Three years of trial and error, including inevitable mistakes and a lot of patience, eventually proved fruitful. According to Kit, “We started to notice that instead of losing 70-80 percent, eventually we lost only 50 percent, and after a couple of months, the taste was beginning to develop.” The Ramms implemented longer cooling periods for the garlic to develop its nuanced flavor and texture, creating a product that is “sweet, smooth and all-around complex.”
Caviar, Truffles and Black Garlic
Unless experienced in its taste and versatility, most people would pass on the unfamiliar smooth, shiny black cloves, especially given its gourmet price. This is why Kit demos at retailers and food pairing events, using smell and taste for marketing. He notes, “It’s fun to watch people’s faces when they experience the subtleties in its flavor,” which he describes as having both a balsamic and sweet taste that varies according to where it is sourced.
Kit arrived from South Africa a little over three years ago to join the family business. “I got very excited about the product because after tasting it, chefs said they loved it and felt that it had such a diverse application. We started to notice that it appealed to people with more mature palates – people who were foodies – so we started to aim the marketing side by pitching it as the caviar or the truffle [of the garlic world] because of the time and effort involved in making it and its scarcity.”
Although it can be made from any type of garlic, chefs reportedly love Ribbon Road’s large black cloves made from the elephant variety, that are easy to use and provide countless opportunities for culinary creativity. According to the Ramms, RR black garlic has been a hit with chefs at local restaurants including La Fleur in Mayville and Oliver’s in Buffalo.
Black garlic can be used in foods from ice cream and cheesecake to pizza, tarts and stuffed mushrooms, or simply tossed with linguine. The Ramms have even developed a black garlic steak sauce that they recommend as a delicious addition to a ribeye steak. For entertaining, Kathleen makes a special dip using cream cheese, sour cream, onion juice and black garlic. They also couple it with asiago, cheddar or fresh garlic. The possibilities are endless.
Riko Chandra, principal cheesemaker and co-owner of Reverie Creamery in Mayville, has developed a new goat cheese using RR black garlic. “It doesn’t have a garlic taste because of the long process of caramelization, with low heat changing the sugar content. … It gives [the cheese] a delicate, sweet molasses taste, so we thought it would be perfect for goat cheese, because it balances it out.”
His advice on serving the cheese is to keep it simple because the flavor is so delicate and soft that it is easy to overly process. “I like to use it with Belgian endive … to play with texture, contrasting the tanginess and smoothness of the goat cheese and the sweetness of the black garlic and pepper notes of Belgian endive.”
Black garlic will stay fresh for up to two years in the refrigerator. Kit recommends rinsing the cloves under cold water before using in order to remove a thin inky coating.
For more information, or to order black or other organic garlic varieties, visit Ribbon Road Farm or call Alan and Kathleen Ramm at 716-326-6150.