The first thing to note about the Gilroy Garlic Festival is that it has been inaugurated into the Guinness World Record book for being the largest garlic festival in the world this year (2017). Guinness World Record Link The town of Gilory is centrally located south of San Francisco and San Jose, just north of Monterey and Marina on the 101. Coming into town on the first day of the Festival, it’s easy to see why it caught so much attention and won the Guinness Record. Acre upon acre of fields has been mowed down to accommodate all the car traffic. Once guided to your spot along with everyone else in a massive field carpeted with straw, dozens of air-conditioned coach buses wait to take you to the festival site further in towards the center of town. After you board, a looped video greets you explaining the history of the festival and helpful hints about how best to enjoy your experience. After a 10-15 minute ride, you step off the bus and are greeted by the voluminous smells of cooking garlic mixed with a background scent of fresh Ponderosa and Jeffery pine, a bit of dust, and the smell of straw. This is a huge event. Over 100k people attend Saturday and Sunday of each year. My hint is to go early on Friday to avoid the massive crowds. The line alone on Saturday to exit the freeway can take 10-15 minutes and your still not near the parking site. I have to say, this is a really well organized event, given the incredible numbers of people. Almost every detail has been thought out; from the fenced in “Pyros” flaming up copious amounts of locally sourced olive oil, to the roaming crews of EMS workers keeping tabs on the crowd, to the friendly mounted Sheriff’s department riding by ready to assist in any crowd control measures that might be needed in case of an emergency. Besides the huge variety of food/drinks available and the crafts for sale, the organizers have several misting tents set up to help people cool off from the hot California sun. The only challenge at the event were the lack of bathrooms. The extremely long lines of people desperate for their turn grew as the day went on. Additional facilities and hand washing areas would have helped.
The festival is split between two major areas, the ranch side and the park side. There are plenty of food tents, live music, beer halls and (being California) wine gardens in each. The ranch side offers a bit more shade than the park side as well as the Competition Stage. On Friday a “Chopped Style” competition was held with local firemen and EMT groups competing for bragging rights and $3000 for charity. This year’s Saturday Garlic Showdown competition was between four local catering chefs. Also on Saturday the Gilroy Garlic-Que BBQ challenge was held putting the region’s best BBQ cooks up against one another. On Sunday, Food Network star Giada De Laurentiis prepared Penne Pasta with Corn and Garlicky Sausage and held a Q&A for enthusiastic foodies in the crowd.
By ordering tickets in advance online, you can save a few dollars for the “official” food of the festival which gives you the option of two different combo plates (listed on the website), though the combo plate choice is made at the festival. We tried one of each. This year the 1st combo plate came with a pepper steak sandwich, calamari in a garlic marinara, and pasta con pesto. The 2nd combo plate came with ½ Sausage Sandwich, Shrimp Scampi, and Mushrooms. Both came with two large slices of garlic bread, and everything was naturally heavy on the garlic.
The other food vendors are typical of any generic state fair with some taking on the garlic theme. Although I didn’t not get the chance to try everything the garlic fries and calamari sautéed in a smoky garlicky tomato sauce were some of my favorites.
If you are looking for ground breaking recipes or some sort of high culinary intellectual soiree, this may not be for you, though no one at this festival has ever claimed it was that. One must take this festival as intended, a celebration of local garlic, olive oil, wine, beer and as a fundraiser for local charities. Local Christopher Ranch, the biggest supplier of fresh garlic in the world has a heavy presence here which draws attention, pride and revelry to this rural farming community. If you are looking for a huge well executed local food festival overflowing with music, curio shopping, food vendors, local wines and beer set in the pristine California AG-land then you should give this a try. Hundreds of thousands of festivalgoers every year can’t all be wrong.
If you would like a garlic recipe try the Garlic Lamb Rack