Behind closed doors on Jersey’s
oldest farm, there’s garlic magic
Photography by Michelle Montgomery
With its crackly, fragile skin and inky, obsidian cloves, black garlic looks like the result of some ancient food preservation technique, veiled in an exotic mist of mystery.
It’s been a buzzy ingredient in the United States since at least 2008, when The New York Times christened black garlic a “new staple” of modern cuisine. Few of us know exactly what it is or where it comes from, but now it’s in restaurants everywhere and even on supermarket shelves.
Black garlic is strongly associated with Asian food, and many fans think of it as one of those traditional foreign ingredients that American food culture has only recently discovered and appropriated, like kimchi or fish sauce. The surprising fact is that black garlic isn’t just relatively new to us; it’s new to everyone. A Korean inventor, Scott Kim, first produced the stuff in 2004. He went on to found a company, Black Garlic, which has dominated the black-garlic market ever since.
Patrick says he invested seven years of his life
and more than $30,000 to engineer and build
the machines at the heart of Obis One.
His risk tolerance for allium espionage is zero.
But it wasn’t too much later that Patrick Lloyd, a history teacher, food enthusiast and natural-born tinkerer, began making black garlic as well, though to considerably less fanfare. He didn’t know black garlic had ever been produced before when he made some of his own in a 1940s-era Sears-kit home on his 18-acre property in Salem County. Today this is headquarters for Obis One, the small black garlic business he started with his wife, Lisa, in 2012.
“I had never heard of Scott Kim when I started. I didn’t know what black garlic was,” Patrick says. “I just wanted to make our garlic taste better and last longer.” So he designed a series of machines that regulate the heat, humidity and pressure in the chamber where his homegrown organic garlic is transformed into the sweet-savory nuggets that the food world has gone gaga for.
One of the common misconceptions about black garlic is that it’s a fermented food—that microbial activity causes the transformation in flavor, texture and appearance. Even Kim’s ubiquitous packs of black garlic mention fermentation on the label. But what’s really responsible is the Maillard reaction—the chemical changes that happen when amino acids and sugars brown in the presence of heat. It’s what gives a thoroughly seared steak its mahogany crust. Black garlic is essentially slow cooked and condensed, like soft, roasted garlic taken to another level—with the help of some seriously secret machines.
“I don’t want a patent,” Patrick says of his self-designed system. “Patents expire. What I have here is a trade secret. Like Pepsi.” Even though I had no camera and promised not to describe it, the Lloyds would not allow me inside the kit house to watch the bulbs on their journey from stinking rose to black gold. Patrick says he invested seven years of his life and more than $30,000 to engineer and build the machines at the heart of Obis One. His risk tolerance for allium espionage is zero.
It only seems paranoid and obsessive until you taste his product. This is black garlic whose flavor and texture is superior to the more commonly available bulbs, the ones distributed by Mr. Kim and sold under the brand name “Black Garlic.” Tasted side by side, the Obis One version is noticeably sweeter but somehow less cloying, with pronounced notes of fruit and chocolate. The texture is soft but not mushy—something like dried fruit. There’s a current of that familiar garlic flavor there, too, but it’s mellow, the volume somehow muffled by the aging process. There’s a savory depth and a complex, lingering finish that fills your mouth and makes you want another taste.
“I like it best on pizza,” Lisa says, as Patrick presents a tray of flatbread pizza topped with their products, including a black-garlic- tinged Gouda cheese made in collaboration with God’s Country Creamery in Ulysses, Pennsylvania. The Lloyds don’t think of their garlic as specialty or gourmet. Though Patrick is an ambitious home cook, the couple’s food sensibilities are decidedly all-American—pizza and burgers.
For their customers, the Lloyds have untangled black garlic from the usual nest of Asian flavors and made it approachable by telling people to put it in pasta or use it to whip up a simple vinaigrette. The Obis One website features recipes like white barbecue sauce and potato- cheddar soup, all enriched with the tamarind-like tang of black garlic. Along with packets of bulbs, the Lloyds sell brittle, dried cloves packed in a grinder so it’s easy to scatter the seasoning over an omelet or hamburger or anything that needs a little zippy enhancement.
Inside his kitchen, Patrick uses a sous vide machine and five different blenders (among other high-tech toys) to transform his black garlic into seasoning blends and snacks he and Linda sell from their foyer/store and online. Their latest, New Bay 33, is a twist on the classic crab spice.
The Lloyds don’t just transform garlic, they also grow it, on what is believed to be the oldest continuously worked farm in the state. Built in 1670, their home/headquarters is situated on land once held by the Lenni Lenape tribe of Native Americans. In fact, Obis One is named for Chief Obisquahassit, who sold the land to settlers. The Lloyds have a portrait of the chief hanging in their home. “We wanted to name the business for him, but Obisquahassit is a bit of a tongue twister, so we went with Obis instead,” Linda says.
While Patrick handles the creative side of Obis One, Linda has taken to tending the garlic fields. Come July, the bulbs will be ready to pull. In early spring, the rows of garlic beds are covered with black plastic sheeting.
“Unfortunately, that doesn’t keep the deer away,” Linda says, pointing to perforations of various sizes made by their teeth. It’s just one of the challenges of chemical-free farming, she says. “Even though it’s harder, we just feel it’s the right way. It’s the right thing to do.”
Obis One isn’t certified organic by the USDA, yet, but the Lloyds are committed to organic farming methods and have started the process of becoming certified so that their products can bear the official seal. Once that happens, they’re likely to be the only seller of organic- certified black garlic produced in the United States.
To keep their farm sustainable, the Lloyds grow a variety of other foods, rotating the crops for the benefit of the soil. “We’ve got tomatoes, radishes, zucchini, basically all the usual home-grown vegetables are here,” says Linda, who handles much of the hauling, weeding and planting that comes with farming. It’s hard work, but she prefers it to the office politicking and paper-shuffling that defined her previous career as an HR professional. “I was so burnt-out I couldn’t wait to start farming full-time,” she says.
Patrick, too, is eager to quit his day job and make the shift, but for the time being he continues juggling two careers, dividing his time between Obis One and teaching architectural engineering and computer- aided drafting at William Penn High School in New Castle, Delaware. Part of his plan for growing the business involves collaborating with chefs and food makers. Some of their vegetable harvest goes to restaurants they’ve begun to supply, such as the café at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, and Domaine Hudson in Wilmington, Delaware. They also grow special items by request, such as the edible flowers that the chefs at Longwood Gardens are especially fond of.
Only two years in, Obis One black garlic has gradually made its way into Brooklyn restaurant kitchens and California health food co-ops. Food-minded neighbors have discovered the Lloyd’s homebased “farm store,” and the restaurant Ninety Acres at Natirar in Peapack-Gladstone have also become customers. Patrick reaches out to new chefs with ideas for possible collaboration. Linda fulfills web orders for their increasingly brisk online sales.
They’ve been approached by Whole Foods about selling their product through the national chain, but Patrick is afraid to grow too big too fast. “This can’t be done on an industrial scale,” he says, and anything that threatens the quality of the product is just plain out of the question. For now, at least, Obis is staying small in its top-secret converted kit house and winning new fans one taste at a time.
20 Sinnickson La., Pennsville