When describing the annual Garlic Festival at the Clatskanie Farmers Market, garlic-grower Steve Routon assures that “bad breath is not a vice on that particular day.”
That’s because one would be remiss not to partake in the plentiful and savory bounty available during the festival, which takes place Saturday at Cope’s Park.
Routon and his wife, Darro Breshears-Routon, plant a few thousand bulbs of garlic to bring to the market, highlighting different varieties and strains. Ian Glasser, of Columbia Gorge Garlic in Washington, is also coming to the market with an array of garlic — including some strains that were recently developed and yet to be named.
The festival has become a staple at the farmers market over the past few years, and provides an experience both delicious and educational. The market features an array of samplings and tasty dishes to introduce patrons to new flavor pairings.
“Not all garlic is created equally,” Routon said. “Some are mild with long shelf-lives, others pack intense heat eaten raw but don’t keep as well. The tasters will lead you to your favorites, and our garlic vendors enjoy nothing more than musing about all things garlic.”
The festival also will include the regular market vendors, a booth with children’s activities and live music from Briar and Joe Seamons, an acoustic duo from Seattle with a flair for jazz, blues and folk songs.
“They are fantastic and we are so excited they are playing,” said Breshears-Routon, president of the farmers market’s board of directors.
Embracing the garlic culture
For Routon, garlic is not merely a crop to harvest and sell. The plant — as well as the practice of growing and using it in food and medicine — is embedded in the heritage and traditions of numerous cultures and shrouded in a myriad of myths, all of which he finds “so absolutely engaging.”
While most consumers are familiar with the softneck garlic varieties sold in grocery stores because they have a long shelf-life, Routon claims it’s “a whole different world” in terms of flavor when dealing with hardneck varieties like purple stripe, porcelain and French rocambole.
“All garlic is good, but gourmet is a whole different thing,” Routon added. “It’s really an education to come and see how different they look, but also how different they taste and how different they cook up.”
However, as a crop, garlic is both labor-intensive and temperamental, according to Routon. Farmers must plant it in late fall, nurse it along until early spring, weed the bed constantly and then dig up the garlic in the summer. From there, farmers clean and cure it.
“Once we’re done with our hands-on practices, it’s the beautiful garlic you’ll see at the festival,” Routon said.
Yet, while garlic farmers could potentially invest less time in another crop and pull a greater bounty, Routon says it wouldn’t be the same.
“For us, it is a practice, it’s kind of a meditation,” he said. “I love cleaning the garlic, and I can sit for hours and hours and hours cleaning bulb after bulb after bulb.”
Because of how much work is involved, it’s normal to get family members and friends involved. When it comes to cleaning his annual haul, one of Routon’s best helpers is his 6-year-old grandson, Wes.
The art of cultivating garlic “pulls you out from your cloistered existences as a farmer,” Routon said. “It draws you much closer to your neighbors, it draws you much closer to your family.”
A movie with a message
This year’s garlic festival will be followed by a special screening of the movie “Kiss the Ground” at 7:30 p.m. at Checkmate Park in Clatskanie. The ticketed event will be a fundraiser for the Clatskanie Farmers Market.
“Kiss the Ground” is a 2020 documentary that features activists, scientists, farmers and politicians exploring regenerative agriculture as a method to save the planet’s topsoil and mitigate the effects of climate change.
“We thought it was appropriate to show it after the garlic festival, because garlic comes from our soil, all the food at the farmers market comes from the soil, and soil sequesters carbon,” said Jasmine Lillich, who serves on the farmers market board. “It all starts with our soil.”
Ticket prices will include barbecued organic foods and “Jun,” a fermented drink similar to kombucha created by Lillich and her partner, Brandon Schilling. The pair are Clatskanie farmers and the owners of The Wild Locals, a farm and orchard.