BJ’s Gourmet Garlic Prepares for the Cleveland Garlic Festival

I made my way through the beautiful rolling hills of Ohio’s rural countryside, just southeast of the Akron area, toward my destination. The address on the mailbox didn’t need to confirm I had reached the location — the distinct yet subtle smell of garlic permeated the air. I was at BJ Gourmet Garlic Farm in Suffield Township where, as I was later told, they don’t even notice the mouthwatering scent.

If you’ve ever wondered about the pungent quality of garlic, you’re certainly not alone. That smell is attributed to allicin, a sulfur-containing compound that actually protects the plant from pests, that becomes more pronounced when fresh garlic is chopped or crushed.

Budd and Judith Ieisenring have been in the garlic business for more than 30 years. They grow 20 varieties of hardneck garlic with exotic and beautiful names like Georgia Fire, Korean red, Music and Persian Star. Budd explains that while the soft neck might last a little longer, the hardneck is the variety that chefs prefer because of the more pronounced flavor. Everything on Budd and Judith’s farm is done by hand. It’s harvest time, so I’ve missed seeing the garlic in the fields, about two acre’s worth, but they’re preparing for many local festivals where they will sell full bulbs of garlic as well as an array of specialty products.

I ask why this garlic is better than the typical grocery store garlic, noting that the scent and size of these bulbs are so much more pronounced. “The majority of store garlic comes from China, Mexico, or Venezuela, and it is radiated to preserve it a long time,” Budd says. If I were to taste the garlic side by side, there would be no comparison, he tells me.

Garlic is peeled using a special machine that extracts the papery wrap, is hand ground, and then moved to a dehydrator. Rows of mason jars with dried garlic sit on shelves for mixing, the subtleties in color indicating different varieties of garlic. Budd credits Judith with their product innovations. “Obviously, we want to raise garlic with large bulbs. However, despite the best growing practices, there are always a percentage of smaller bulbs harvested that are not marketable as fresh or seed garlic. Judith conceived the idea of using these bulbs to produce value added products,” he says. Now, Budd and Judith also offer ancillary garlic products which include garlic-infused Italian extra virgin olive oil and a garlic and cilantro infused aged balsamic vinegar as well as a variety of dried garlic and salt, pepper, and spice mixes. They listened to their customers and developed grinder shakers, making fresh ground dried garlic convenient for cooking.  A recent collaboration with Lake Erie Creamery resulted in a garlic herb spread.

I picked up several grinder combinations and a jar of spicy garlic pickles I’m especially excited about, as well as a “Chef’s Variety Pack” with five bulbs, each a different variety so I can experiment on my own. Budd’s favorites are Music and Italian Red, but talking to him it is evident he loves all of his “children.”

You can buy their products online or at the North Union Farmers Market at Shaker Square, the Aurora Farmers Market, or the Medina Farmers market, and many special events around town.

BJ Gourmet Garlic Farm is one of the vendors at the upcoming Cleveland Garlic Festival, August 26-27 at Shaker Square—exactly where the North Union Farmer’s Market is on Saturdays. Numerous other local garlic growers and vendors will be there with their sometimes surprising garlic-inspired products (including Mitchell’s Homemade with the oddly palatable garlic ice cream they make for the occasion) and there are cooking demonstrations and live music and plenty of food to try. For more information in advance of the Garlic Festival, visit clevelandgarlicfestival.org.

–Lisa Sands