My uncle, Fred Dini, was the cook in his platoon in the US Army during World War II. When I was a little girl, he would often make me my favorite pasta: linguine aglio olio, he called it. Spaghetti with olive oil and garlic. So simple and delicious. I wish we had known about the famous red garlic of Sulmona, because I’m sure it would have made it even better.
I discovered red garlic in 2010, on my first trip to Abruzzo. The intricate garlic braids at the mercato in Sulmona, in the Valle Peligna, caught my eye, and I had to learn more. The outer, papery wrappers of the Sulmona red garlic (aglio rosso di Sulmona) are white, but the cloves inside are covered with rich cranberry colored wrappers. The taste is unique – both sweet and pungent at the same time, with an intense aroma – and flavorful enough so that you use less than you normally would in a recipe.
And those braids? They are the traditional way to store the precious bulbs, consisting of 52 bulbs, one for each week of the year – testament to the fact that this garlic has such a long shelf life when kept in a cool, dry place.
Sulmona’s aglio rosso has one other tasty benefit that is unique to the species: scapes (zolle). These are the flowery stalks that grow from the bulb and which must be removed (about one month before harvest) so that the bulb can fully mature. Once this delicacy is harvested – generally in late May – the scapes can be cooked and served as a side dish or preserved in oil (sott’olio).
Red garlic has a long tradition here in Abruzzo, with growing methods passed down from generation to generation. While garlic originated in Mesopotamia, the first known records of garlic in Abruzzo date back to the mid-nineteenth century, when historian Panfilo Serafini (1817-1864) wrote in his Historical Memory of Sulmona, “We cultivate various species of cabbage, celery, fennel, endive, garlic, etc.”
In 2008, historian Franco Cercone, writing in Sulmona’s Red Garlic in Folk Medicine and Traditional Peligna Gastronomy, reported that in 1876, “one hectare sown in garlic yielded 510 Lire to the farmer, a decidedly substantial sum in those days, since in this period a day of harvesting costs 2,50 Lire.” What happened?
The history of the crop is complicated, rife with hoarding, price fixing and stringent trade regulations, with the result that in 1929 it was reported that during the prior six years an average of only 15 hectares of garlic were grown in all of Sulmona.
In the 1980s, as production was further decreasing, red garlic was added to the Slow Food movement’s Ark of Taste, designating it as an endangered heritage food “culturally or historically linked to a specific region, locality, ethnicity or traditional production practice,” according to Slow Food USA. The growing region was given a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) to further promote and conserve the variety.
The opening of European markets in 1993 led to a profound reduction in the areas cultivated with Rosso di Sulmona garlic. “Unfortunately, the production yield per hectare of Sulmona Red Garlic is lower than that of the varieties of garlic grown in Spain or France,” reports Antonio Ricci, an agronomist with close ties to the revival of Sulmona red garlic. “They are equally red, yes, but have considerably inferior qualities.” Still, in the Valle Peligna, Spanish or French red garlic started to be grown and marketed as Rosso di Sulmona – a move that actually risked making the Sulmona variety disappear.
Read the full article in the June issue of ABRUZZISSIMO Magazine. Click here to subscribe.
By Linda Dini Jenkins. Linda leads small tours to Italy and blogs about travel at www.travelitalythewriteway.com.