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Olfactory extravaganza as Toronto Garlic Festival celebrates the stinky bulb

10/10/2012 03:30 EDT | Updated 12/10/2012 05:12 EST
TORONTO - Garlic lovers will be in seventh heaven at a Toronto festival this weekend honouring the odiferous seasoning.

The Toronto Garlic Festival being held at the Evergreen Brick Works is a combination market — with Ontario farmers selling their homegrown garlic — and a food area featuring about 20 local chefs preparing dishes containing the potent bulb that reflect their culture or a signature dish they've created for the festival.

Aficionados can even participate in a garlic breath contest put on by the Ontario Science Centre, says organizer Peter McCluskey, who is also a garlic producer.

McCluskey, who has a background in marketing from working for a stock photo company in New York, decided it was time for a career change a few years ago and interned at a farm between Acton and Rockwood, about an hour's drive from his downtown Toronto home.

"Along the way I started growing garlic and got really intrigued by Ontario garlic, by the flavour. I used to be a cook and still enjoy cooking and just fell in love with the favour of Ontario garlic," he said ahead of the two-day event.

"We have really tremendous soil in Ontario and another (factor) is that the imported garlic is intensely produced in a mass scale and they don't use the same variety as what we grow in Ontario. To sum it up, it tends to be a softneck garlic you buy in the supermarket and it doesn't have the same robust flavour as Ontario garlic, which is a hardneck type of garlic."

He conceived the idea for the festival early last year when he was trying to figure out how to reach a market for his garlic.

Last year's event attracted about 5,000 people on one day and he's expecting about 8,000 people over the two days of this year's festival. "It's just ballooned into this very big thing."

There are other festivals across the country and in the U.S. celebrating the highly scented seasoning in use around the world for thousands of years. "The interesting thing about the Toronto festival is that it's one of the few that's in a major city. Most of them tend to be in rural places," McCluskey said.

"What I thought was unique is that Toronto has a diverse population and people from everywhere in the world. A common denominator is that they all love garlic. There's rarely a cuisine that doesn't use garlic."

Just-cooked garlic dishes being served up will be designed for vegetarians, meat lovers, "raw" foodies, locavores, beer and wine connoisseurs and even people with a sweet tooth. Items will range from upscale to comforting, including roast suckling pig and tuna sashimi with garlic, while Cheesewerks, a grilled cheese specialty shop in Toronto, is doing a "herbaceous" makeover on the sandwich. Festival-goers can purchase food tickets in $2 denominations. Food portions cost $2 to $8.

To determine who has the strongest garlic breath, the science centre is using a machine that measures breath in the parts per billion.

"It's an opportunity to talk about the science of garlic and what's in garlic breath and that's why the Ontario Science Centre is very interested in participating in the festival and will judge the contest.... (Participants are) encouraged to eat as much garlicky things as they want and they'll breathe into this apparatus. It takes about 10 minutes to get a result from each person," McCluskey explained.

Among the 50 vendors, visitors will find myriad local garlic specimens, including rare and heirloom varieties, garlic jellies and jams, relishes and dips, ginseng root from a grower near Simcoe, Ont., fresh herbs and garlic paraphernalia like presses, cookbooks and aprons.

History and culture junkies can learn about garlic and Dracula from Prof. Elizabeth Miller, a Bram Stoker expert, and food chemist Dr. Eric Block of the University of Albany in New York state will dissect the healthful elements of the beautiful bulb in a talk titled "Chemistry in a Salad Bowl." Gardener Liz Primeau, author of "In Pursuit of Garlic," will explore garlic lore.

McCluskey and another farmer have combined to give away about 70 kilograms of garlic to community gardening groups in the city, which is the equivalent of about 3,000 garlic plants.

"That's a very cool thing for me is that I can combine business with social-mindedness," he said.

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If You Go ...

Toronto Garlic Festival will take place at Evergreen Brick Works, 550 Bayview Ave., Toronto. Wheelchair accessible. It runs Saturday from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Admission is $10 per adult, $8 for seniors and free for children under 12. There is an early-bird admission for tickets on the festival website, http://www.torontogarlicfestival.ca/.

Because paid parking is at a premium, McCluskey has come up with the slogan "Don't Stink and Drive" and arranged for shuttle buses to ferry people from Broadview and Davisville subway stations.

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