There are so many tasty Italian dishes out there! The other day, for instance, for the first time, I cooked a delicacy from Sulmona, Abruzzo: garlic scapes. They are garlic flower stalks that are picked before the blooms develop to make the bulbs grow bigger. Sulmona is famous for its tasty red garlic and all growers in the area collect two harvests: scapes in May and garlic bulbs in June.
I was talking to Franca Ricotilli about growing organic vegetables and she told me I should come back in four days to see how they collect “tolle”, as garlic scapes are called here. I had no idea what she was talking about but I am a huge garlic lover and even the word “garlic” makes me drool. So Franca didn’t need to ask me twice.
When I arrived for the harvest the garlicky scent was in the air and the sun was sizzling hot. Franca with her daughters had started early that morning, at 6am. They have a small red Sulmona garlic plantation of about 2000 square metres, which doesn’t sound like much. Until you begin picking scapes by hand, one by one. They do it 3-4 times every 4-5 days in May and collect anything between 80 and 160 kg.
There is a trick to picking scapes: they have to squeak. “To get it right you start pulling one gently”, showed me Franca. “You have to hear a little squeaky sound, which means you got the whole stalk, with its tender white base”. It took me a few pulls before I heard the squeak. It is hard work, which doesn’t always pay well. Many re-sellers go around local farms offering only 50 cents for a kilo of tolle, and sell them later for 2-3 euro at green grocers and markets. Franca says that they know that garlic growers have to pick scapes anyway, so such low price seems justified to them. That’s why garlic growers prefer to sell directly to the customer. Normally Franca has people booking bunches of tolle well in advance and coming to buy them as soon as they are collected.
I went home with two large bunches of garlic scapes. In the Sulmona area they are normally just boiled or preserved in oil and vinegar. I boiled them for 10 minutes and served dozed in olive oil with a squeeze of lemon juice. The sophisticated asparagus is bland and boring compared to tolle. They keep their lovely crunch and become very sweet with just a hint of garlic. I also added them raw to salads for a lovely garlicky flavour. After some research online, I found great scapes recipes that want to try when I am bored with eating them raw or simply boiled. Although, I don’t think it is going to happen any time soon.