By David Webb
Garlic. Sweet, stinky, succulent. Curer of ills; essence of all good food.
Home of the sprawling Christopher Ranch garlic farm, the city of Gilroy, located about 1.5 hours south of San Francisco, is the self-proclaimed “Garlic Capital of the World.” Visitors are often drawn in by Gilroy’s 145-store Premium Outlet Centres or award-winning wine production but will stay for the “Garlic Trail” — which includes nine garlicky restaurants and seven garlic-themed shops.
The biggest draw of all, though — the one that brings in 100,000 hungry visitors on the last full weekend of July — is the Gilroy Garlic Festival, set to stink up the skyline for the 36th time from July 25 to 27, 2014.
“The food choices are very, very good — if you’re a food person, it’s an event you really want to go to. At most events, you don’t get this kind of variety… this is a little more high-end,” says Randy Costa, past president of the festival and current member of its Strategic Planning Group. “We also have a really good arts and crafts section — we have over 90 artists… most of the artists say this is one of their best shows.”
The festival is centred around a giant outdoor kitchen — Gourmet Alley — where the famed “pyro chefs” heat things up while sautéing shrimp (two tons!) and squid (four tons!) in lots and lots of garlic.
“You can smell it in the air when you drive into town,” says Costa.
Beyond the flames, visitors can peruse fare from sandwiches to steaks (the pepper steak sandwich dipped in garlic butter is a local recommendation) and there’s even a booth doling out free garlic ice cream. Each year, it is estimated festivalgoers consume two tons of fresh garlic, all harvested from the Christopher Ranch; the heart and soul of Gilroy’s garlic industry for half-a-century.
As a family event, expect lots for kids to get involved in too — even if their young palettes haven’t yet learned to appreciate the robust flavours. Activities for teens include a mechanical bull and a zip-line; younger kids will like the carnival games and children’s entertainment, such as the Puppet Circus or Ronald McDonald Show.
On-site live music ranges from country to reggae — an Elvis impersonator is even scheduled to perform. And since this is wine country, adults can imbibe with some vino from local winemakers. (The area is well regarded for Pinot Noir, a nice complement to the strong flavour of the foodstuffs.)
This festival is much more than just good eats and entertainment, however.
“About 140 to 150 charities benefit from the festival,” adds Costa. The Garlic Fest has a unique system of divvying funds — volunteers, of which there are thousands, work at a set per-hour rate, which is compiled and donated to the charity of their choice.
“If you live in Gilroy, at some point in your lifetime you volunteer,” says Costa, adding that on any given year about 10 per cent of the city’s population volunteers at the event.
Each festival day, main-stage events beckon. On Friday, chefs from local universities will showcase their culinary creativity in a cooking competition, vying for a $5,000 scholarship. Saturday features the Great Garlic Cook-off, where eight pre-selected finalists prepare their greatest garlic-themed dishes for a panel of judges, in competition for a $5,000 prize. Sunday closes with the Garlic Showdown, an Iron Chef-style event with, again, five-grand at stake. Beyond the stage, guests wander the grounds and chow-down at will.
“Get there early! There’s only so much you can eat if you’re only there for a short amount of time,” advises Costa.
Welcome to Gilroy — Garlic Capital of the World, indeed.
Event Details: Runs July 25 to 27, 2014, at Christmas Hill Park in Gilroy, California. Open 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $10 (kids and seniors) $20 (adults); buy at gilroygarlicfestival.com for a $2 discount. Free parking with shuttle bus.
While in Gilroy
Dine: For lunch, visit the Garlic City Café, located downtown on Monterey Street. Delectable, home-cooked garlicky meals abound from this unassuming local’s joint. (Try the Garlic Soup!) For dinner, try The Milias — nearly next-door to the café. While sampling the fine fare, ask owner Adam Sanchez to tell you about the resident ghosts in this historic building.
Drink: Solis Winery, on the Hecker Pass Highway about 10 minutes west of Gilroy, is one of 21 premium wineries in the area. Pop in for a tasting — no reservation required — seven days per week. santaclarawines.com
Do: Shop literally ‘till you drop. Gilroy’s 145 Premium Outlets require a good bit of hoofing-it to travel from one end to the other, but think of all the money you’ll save.
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