By Treena Hein
By Treena Hein
Through no fault of farmers, the selection of Ontario garlic on store shelves in the province shriveled up during the 1990s. Imported garlic became the market norm mostly because it was less expensive. But, as has been the case with other fresh and local homegrown bounty, more people are discovering that nothing compares to Ontario garlic. Excitement is building around its quality and flavour, and it’s making a big comeback – and not just at farmer’s markets and grocery stores, but also through the availability of a myriad of specialty products that turn meals into gourmet feasts.
The Garlic Box near Hensall, Ont., is leading the charge. Owner Jackie Rowe, her husband, Jim, and their staff now run Canada’s leading premier company of gourmet garlic food products, from garlic-infused oils and salts to zesty condiments and tasty seasonings. It all started in 1997, with one acre of garlic and farm gate sales. Now, the business processes between 40,000 and 50,000 lbs of garlic each year for their own value-added products as well as their fresh market and seed sales.
“We grow, and buy and sell with other farmers to achieve our required yield,” Rowe explains. “Garlic is a crop requiring field rotation so this method leverages the risk.”
Her preferred variety is Music, a hard-neck garlic that winters well in Ontario, cures well and produces six fat cloves per bulb. Rowe describes it as having a moderate but complex heat and rich earthy flavour, with a lingering mineral finish showing off its ‘taste of the place.’
Fresh Ontario garlic had virtually no market share in 1998, Rowe explains, which allowed a successful introduction of value-added local garlic food products.
“Our mission since then has simply been to bring local garlic to the kitchen table through delicious products, and we’ve been delighted that consumers have been willing to incorporate our seasonings and condiments into their existing ‘pre-local’ cooking repertoires,” she says.
In the beginning, Rowe’s efforts to reach consumers and educate the public included a small hand-sketch mail order catalogue. Today, she offers 40 different products through online sales, specialty stores, and independent grocers. Demand for local garlic at the industrial food sector level has also opened up new opportunities.
The most popular products are ‘Ultimate Garlic Mashed Potato Seasoning,’ ‘Super Garlicky Bread Dipper with Blue Cheese,’ ‘Ultimate Garlic Steak Splash’ and ‘Apple Cider & Garlic Vinaigrette.’
“Cooks know how to cook with these items,” Rowe explains. “Our evolution with value-added products has mirrored consumer trends like comfort food, health and flavoured salts.”
The Garlic Box’s ‘Horseradish Garlic Condiment’ won an International Taster’s Award at the Food & Drink Expo in Birmingham, England, and ‘Ultimate Garlic Steak Splash’ won a Best New Product Award from the Canadian Gift Association. Rowe says her product line-up is always relevant and encourages repeat sales (in particular, the ‘Ultimate Garlic Mash Potato Seasoning’ has strong repeat). The sale of key products accounts for almost half of total company profits.
This year, The Garlic Box received the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence, bestowed on farm businesses for the recent creation of new products, adding value to existing products and building economic growth. In this case, The Garlic Box was recognized for developing an individual quick freezing (IQF) process for peeled Ontario garlic cloves, allowing them to be used year-round by both consumers and food service businesses, with no nutritional loss. The process development work involved Northland Garlic Farms of Durham and took place at Southcoast in Delhi, Ont., a state-of-the-art facility specializing in fast-freezing local produce. Funding was provided by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada through the Canadian Agricultural Adaptation Program.
The trials built on what had already been learned at The Garlic Box.
“In 2000, we had introduced a freezing process for peeled cloves to secure inventory for making value-added products,” Rowe recalls. “It worked for some production methods but performed poorly when isolated as a value-added consumer ingredient product.”
There were other challenges as well. At the time, local garlic was not as abundant and the price was high because Ontarians were not yet buying it like they are today. Secondly, accessing the value chain for frozen foods is a tough go.
“It requires years of effort and partnership-building to advance your product to this level of sales, which must first be activated with consumer demand,” Rowe says. “Finally, we had to establish a working relationship with growers to supply the garlic. The efforts to bring this product to market have covered the entire food chain spectrum and involved all the stakeholders.”
In terms of the nuts and bolts of the freezing process itself, Rowe easily pinpoints the biggest challenge – working from scratch. While existing IQF technology has been used to freeze Ontario sweet corn, peas, strawberries and more, garlic cloves had never been tested.
“Whole peeled garlic cloves are a breathing vegetable (herbaceous perennial) and dense, with a naturally high sugar and moisture content which slows the freezing process,” she says. “For reference, we had to look at handling them like sour cherries. We learned that pre-chilling to lower the core temperature was required, as was continuous vibration on the line to wick away moisture and prevent ice-crystal formation.”
In terms of sales, Rowe says the market for frozen garlic cloves is just beginning to open up. The Garlic Box is working hard to get consumer, food service companies, restaurants and food processors to try them. With consumers, it’s a matter of changing perception to so that people consider the freezer category for their local garlic needs, and a door decal has been designed to accomplish this purpose.
“Once consumers gain confidence,” Rowe says, “we plan to add two flavours to help inspire them and enhance their cooking portfolios.”
How did it feel to win the Premier’s Award?
“Wow!” Rowe exclaims. “It means a lot – to The Garlic Box and the Ontario garlic industry as a whole. The recognition for our efforts to strengthen and position Ontario’s garlic industry through the spirit of innovation is an important milestone.”