By Duncan A. Kennedy
In the last couple years, even with the pandemic and wildfires raging across the area in that time, you may have noticed advertisements – in person or online – for a product called “black garlic”, and some of you may have even noticed this product in stores or have seen a dish containing it on the menu at a local restaurant. This unique local specialty delicacy is the brainchild of two local entrepreneurs who were inspired by a food preservation technique several millennia old.
So what is black garlic anyway? According to Pine Cone Kitchen cofounder Greg Lusson, this substance is produced by taking whole bulbs of garlic and fermenting them for 60 days with a combination of heat and humidity until the bulb’s tissues undergo the Maillard Reaction (a form of sugar and amino acid transformation that gives flavor to everything from grilled meat to roasted coffee or vegetables), causing them to turn a deep black and take on a unique texture almost like a fig or dried date. The flavor is less acrid and more earthy than normal garlic and has a sweet aftertaste, almost like a slightly garlic-flavored gummy candy.
This food is an odd but versatile substance; due to its soft texture, it can be directly spread on bread or crackers, mixed into cream cheese, or incorporated into a variety of dishes. Pine Cone Kitchen has held recipe competitions between local chefs previously, producing interesting results such as a black garlic pasta at Whitehawk Resort and a black roast pheasant at the Iron Door in Johnsville. Its flavor is more delicate than raw white garlic, so it can’t quite be used the same way. Some locally have called it “The Caviar of the High Sierra”, but this author believes it to be more like the Truffle of the Lost Sierra, since it tastes similar to one and can be dried slightly and grated in much the same way as a truffle.
This local sensation is the brainchild of local culinary enthusiasts, Bay Area refugees and chronically curious experimentationalists Greg Lusson and Kayla Burton. Both are lifelong foodies, and in Burton’s case, longtime visitors to the Lost Sierra (her grandfather built a cabin in what is now Plumas Pines in 1952 and took his descendants there to vacation every summer). Lusson first ran into black garlic as a noodle garnish in a ramen house during a previous career, at the time wondering if it was garlic cured in soy sauce in some manner.
During the COVID-19 pandemic of the last couple years, the duo realized they could theoretically live and work from anywhere with the new developments in virtual communication and remote lifestyle options. When pondering where they’d want to be located, they ultimately spiraled back to Plumas County, in the same area where Burton had spent her summers growing up. At one point, while hanging out at the Knotty Pine Tavern in Graeagle, Lusson mentioned he’d been working on a black garlic recipe, and “things just snowballed from there.” The Knotty Pine was also the first place to stock black garlic from Pine Cone, as soon as the duo had launched their business and gotten their first products done. The tavern first used the garlic as a garnish on Bloody Marys, though the product’s versatility would rapidly come to light as more people learned about it and experimented with it.
Pine Cone Kitchen has pondered a variety of future plans as to what to do with their garlic. The duo hopes they’ll be able to engage in opportunities like the Plumas-Sierra County Fair in July and the Reno Garlic Fest in August. They’ve been purchasing the garlic for fermenting from local producers, but are producing their own garlic as well for the first time this year, and hope to experiment with wild garlic foraged from the Lakes Basin near Graeagle as well to produce some novel limited runs.
Other options on the table include hot sauce containing black garlic, a dry rub produced in partnership with Simply Roots Coffee, and potentially some garlic honey experiments with Lost Sierra Honey, a close business partner. Another recipe contest will be held this June, with anyone from the public who is interested encouraged to participate. Lusson has a long-term vision of potentially selling at outlets in Reno, but wants to make sure he doesn’t have to compromise their small-scale process and community-oriented business model to do it.
Lusson and Burton would like to thank Lost Sierra Honey and Knotty Pine Tavern for helping them realize this vision, the Cuccia family for their support and mentorship, and the Ronin Fermentation Project for being a good place to have a drink during the development process.
This article is the first entry in a series about local notables and what they’re doing titled “Faces of the Lost Sierra”. If you have anyone you’d like to nominate for this series, feel free to contact us by phone or email. The Mountain Messenger would like to thank Greg Lusson and Kayla Burton for reaching out and offering to let us interview them for this article. Go find some black garlic on Plumas County shelves, at farmers’ markets or in local cuisine; it’s good stuff.