Gilroy Garlic Festival

The Gilroy Garlic Festival is an annual culinary celebration and a favorite California destination for many garlic and food lovers alike.

Garlic -- everybody simply loves garlic! Pickled, diced, sliced, crushed, powdered, pressed, baked, sautéed, or juiced, there is no end to this innocuous-looking bulb's versatility and immense popularity in most kitchens around the world. Garlic has been picked wild or cultivated in gardens and fields for over 6 millennia. The Egyptians worshipped it and the Greeks were the first to laud its healing properties. Garlic is known to fight bacteria and infection, it helps lower cholesterol, is said

to aid in blood circulation and guards against coughs and colds. It can also be used as a natural bug repellent -- and of course garlic will keep any lurking vampires at bay.

Garlic, or the "stinking rose" as its often called is related to the lily family. A single bulb usually consists of 6 smaller bulbets or cloves that can be easily broken off from the main bulb. Crushing or finely dicing garlic releases the most flavour. Garlic sprouts can even be chopped and added to salads, much the same way as fresh chives.

There are hundreds of varieties of garlic and the bulbs vary in colour and size, from the popular white American garlic to the largest and most mildly-flavoured, the Elephant garlic. Garlic is planted in the spring and ideally harvested in mid-summer, usually in July. The bulbs are then hung in a dark, dry location to cure for a few weeks. Properly cured and stored garlic bulbs will usually keep from 3-6 months. Garlic does have one unpleasant side-effect though - it creates something of an off-putting smell after ingestion. Why does this happen? Once a garlic clove is processed a sulphur-like enzyme called "allicin" is released. The human body cannot totally absorb allicin, thus the resultant "garlic breath". For those who consume large quantities of the raw or cooked bulb a stronger body odor may also result.

The increasing popularity of garlic has spawned numerous annual celebrations or festivals all over the world. North America also hosts a fair share of celebrations centering around garlic. Of these, Gilroy has the distinction of being named the "Garlic Capitol of the World". Gilroy is a town of around 40,000 citizens and is located in southern Santa Clara County in California. The area enjoys mild temperatures, the growing season usually averaging between 300-350 days per year, making Gilroy and the surrounding valley the perfect location for a wide variety of agricultural production.

Goldminers and pioneers of various ethnic backgrounds first settled in the Gilroy valley in the mid-1800's. Cattle grazing and barrel making were the earliest industries. Grain and hay production soon followed and by the time the railroad came to town in 1869 a brewery, flour mill and distillery had been built. Other crops and products like tobacco, prunes and milk and cheese were introduced and proved very successful commodities. Around the turn of the century Italian and Japanese immigrants introduced other field crops like tomatoes, onions, peppers, grapes, and of course garlic. Food products and food processing are now a major industry in Gilroy and add millions of dollars to the economy as well as employing hundreds of people from town and the surrounding area.

The idea to hold an annual Gilroy Garlic Festival first germinated in 1978, after a Rotary Club luncheon focusing on the local garlic industry proved very successful. Every item offered on the menu was prepared with garlic. Local food editors were invited and subsequently praised the menu and the event. Twenty one years and millions of guests and tourists later and the Festival is still going strong.

The Gilroy Garlic Festival is held on the last weekend of July and has in recent years attracted growing numbers of garlic connoisseurs, tourists, or simply the curious who wander by to see what all the big stink is all about. The 3 day event hosts all sorts of entertainment including live music shows, craft booths -- most of which incorporate garlic in their designs -- and the crowning of the year's Garlic Queen.

By far the most memorable event is a stroll through Gourmet Alley. Visitors with not only a big appetite but also a discerning palate are encouraged to sample the many garlic-based food offerings which highlight everything from garlic flavoured soups, hors d'oeuvres and salads to intricately-prepared main dishes. There are even a number of garlic-laced treats for people with a sweet tooth. In past years garlic brownies and garlic ice-cream were presented and were a huge hit, despite some initial hesitation from skeptical samplers. One bite and they were soon convinced that garlic does indeed add a mild, nutty flavour to sweet treats and snacks.

The Great Gilroy Garlic Cook-Off is another popular draw. Each year thousands of garlic recipe entries are screened and of these the most interesting are selected and narrowed down to a field of 8 finalists. These lucky ladies or gentlemen are then invited to the Gilroy Garlic Festival where they prepare their recipes and then await final judging by a celebrity tasting panel.

Garlic! Is there any other food besides chocolate that's garnered such a huge and loyal following? As garlic's appeal grows and its possible further health benefits continue being researched the crowds who patronise garlic celebrations also grow. Why not make one of these tasty community celebrations next year's holiday destination? The Gilroy Garlic Festival should be number one on the list.

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