Red Sulmona garlic (Aglio rosso di Sulmona) is one of Abruzzo’s treasures that is waiting to be discovered by the world. Its outside skin looks just like that of any other garlic, but the inside shell is a lovely purplish-red. Its this colour and a great mild sweet flavour that make Sulmona’s garlic so special.
Although it has been cultivated since the 18th century, just a few connoisseurs and those who have relatives in Abruzzo know about it. It grows in a small area around the city of Sulmona (hence the name) and its production has been steadily increasing in the last few years. Although, there is some machinery involved in garlic cultivation, a lot of work is manual. Many families have been growing aglio rosso for generations and everyone has their own little tricks and secrets on how to do it better.
In June garlic scapes are picked and I have written about this divine traditional delicacy. The garlic itself is harvested at the start of July and left to dry for 10-15 days. After that, the bulbs are sorted by size and, as the old local tradition dictates, garlic braids are made. Unlike many other types of garlic, aglio rosso di Sulmona is never treated chemically after the harvest. For centuries, the only way to store it was in braids hung in a cool dry place. This method allows better air circulation and the garlic can last for up to 10 months.
I went to the house of Filippo Centofanti and Franca Allegra to see how garlic braids are made. Filippo proudly showed me the prize he has won: Mister Aglio Rosso. The local jury of experts picked his garlic as the best in the area. “They evaluate the shape, colour, uniformity and size, as well as the taste”, explained Filippo. “My garlic is pungent but not too much, with a hint of sweetness, just the way aglio rosso di Sulmona should be”. And he is certainly an expert: his grandfather and father cultivated the garlic and taught him a thing or two.
Franca and her son Alberto sat down to braid the bulbs. They didn’t talk much, and when I asked what is the key to making a good braid, Franca smiled and said: “A lot of practice”. This year Filippo, Franca and Alberto harvested 2 tons (weight after drying) of garlic, so they had a lot of practice with their braid-making. A braid of Sulmona red garlic is normally double, with 40-50 bulbs and weighs up to 3 kg. To see whether it was made by an expert, you have to look on the inside: the leaves are tightly wrapped in a neat even pattern.
Later, when I got home, my kitchen filled with the smell of fresh garlic that I brought back from Sulmona. The temptation was unbearable: I cut a thick slice of local bread, rubbed it with a few cloves, added a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkled it with sea salt. Life is good in Abruzzo!