BENNINGTON >> The scent of garlic carried heavy in the air this weekend, marking the return of "Garlicfest" at Camelot Village.
Thousands of people turned out for the two-day event, officially known as the Southern Vermont Garlic and Herb Festival. The 21st annual celebration of all things garlic drew 200 vendors. Attendees were treated to demonstrations, live music, and of course, the food – from traditional entrees and festival offerings and endless samples of raw garlic, to the more unusual, like garlic-flavored ice cream and lemonade. In the word of more than one attendee, just call it "garlic love."
That love for garlic isn't just for its taste or vampire-repelling properties. It's good for you, as Suzy Gilman of Willowtree Organic Farm in Stephentown, N.Y., will attest.
"Sixteen seasons I've been planting garlic. And 16 seasons, no cold," she said.
An herb, to be classified as such, needs to have culinary, dyeing and medicinal qualities. The skins of some garlic varieties can be used to dye yarn. And the ancients thought garlic had medicinal properties. Today, science has shown that the sulphur compounds in garlic can lower blood pressure and cholesterol, improve circulation, and boost the immune system.
"Socrates, the father of modern medicine, said, 'Let your medicine be your food, and your food be your medicine,'" Gilman said.
Organizers planned for 15,000 attendees throughout the weekend. By the end of the day on Saturday, they clocked just under 8,000 people, according to Matt Harrington, executive director for the Bennington Chamber of Commerce.
"I'd say we're at record pace," Harrington said just after 3 p.m. on Saturday. "Usually we see some waves of people, but today, we saw a steady stream."
At the festival's peak on Saturday, a line of westbound Route 9 traffic stretched from the gates, into the village of Old Bennington, and down to the Monument Elementary School. Law enforcement officers were at the gates to direct cars. But festival traffic is a good problem to have, said Mike Harrington, the town's economic development director.
"More traffic means more feet on the street," Mike Harrington said. "Anything that brings people to town is great. We hope people stop downtown and see what else the town has to offer."
Matt Harrington said the event wouldn't be possible without the volunteers. It takes about 100 people to help out the week leading up to the event, he said.
"I look at this in amazement. My staff couldn't do this heavy lifting alone," he said.
The brothers have been emceeing the event for about five years. Both said their favorite part is seeing people have a great time and hearing about where they're from. Visitors to their booth came from all over the country.
"I think we sometimes forget about the beauty that we live in," Matt Harrington said. "But we've had lots of people stop by our booth today and say how much they love coming to Vermont."
Visitors to Willowtree Organic Farm's booth could buy garlic pickles, as well as garlic cherry fudge. Gilman said she's been making the fudge for years and it's always been a hit. She said her favorite garlic dishes are garlic mashed potatoes and garlic hamburgers. And it's great on toasted buttered bread.
Her favorite variety is Spanish Roja, a hardneck heirloom.
"It has a nice bite. But swallow it to the back of your tongue, and it's got a gourmet finish," she said.
Sabrina Superneau-Gilman has been helping her grandmother since she was six or seven. Now 20, she was helping run the vendor booth.
"I like to see all the smiling faces, and appreciate garlic," she said. "It's funny to see a little kid leave with a big pickle in their hand – it's as big as their face."
Adam McAllister and his family make the nearly 300-mile trip from Holley, N.Y., each year. It's one of several events they attend annually where they represent their own A&L Garlic Farms.
"It's one of the best. Maybe second only to the festival in Hudson, New York," McCallister said of the Bennington festival.
He's been planting for about 10 years, he said, adding: "Deer were eating all of my crops. So, I switched to garlic. Because, deer aren't Italian."
What's his favorite recipe? That's a tough one, McCallister said.
"Here's something better than a recipe, here's a tip for when you don't think your garlic will store much longer," he said. "Peel them, chop them up, put them in an ice cube tray, and fill them with water. Freeze them, and then put them in Ziplock bags. If you're making sauce or something, just drop an ice cube in."
Like others, McAllister said he enjoys being around people who just love garlic.
"You'd be surprised how many people do," he said.
Contact Ed Damon at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.