Every time I go to Europe, I come back with a suitcase full of food. Tucked in among the dried sausages, bottles of interesting sauces and tins of sardines is a thick braid of garlic. It's not just for decoration, although it does look nice hanging from a hook in my kitchen - rather, I buy European garlic because I like the taste of it.
Some people might think all garlic is the same, but they're wrong. The inexpensive stuff you buy at supermarkets and wet markets in Hong Kong is from China, and it's almost certain that it's been bleached - the entire head of garlic will be an evenly coloured, unnatural-looking off-white.
A few wet-market vendors sell unbleached Chinese garlic: you can tell because it has shades of purple on the exterior of the head, particularly at the base. But still, I prefer European garlic, when it's available: the cloves seem moister and firmer, and it has more flavour. You can buy it by the head from upmarket shops such as Oliver's and Great, but it's very expensive compared with the prices you pay in Europe.
When I was in France earlier this month, many of the vegetable vendors were selling fresh garlic, which has a short season. Also called ail nouveau (new garlic), the bulbs have long, green leaves attached to them (when dried, the leaves turn pale tan and can be used to braid the bulbs together). Fresh garlic should be used very differently from the garlic that's available year-round, which has been air-dried under shade to make it just dry enough that it can be stored for months without spoiling. With fresh garlic, the "skin" that surrounds each clove, which we peel away with normal garlic, is thicker and moister. It has a waxy texture similar to that of the petals of lily bulbs that we eat in Chinese dishes and it can be julienned, stir-fried and used as a garnish. The cloves themselves have a crunchier texture and are similar in flavour to garlic scapes. When raw, fresh garlic is very strong, but if you cook the cloves until tender, the flavour becomes sweet.
When buying a garlic braid to bring back to Hong Kong, check it carefully. The bulbs should be very hard; reject the entire strand if any of the heads are soft, because the softness will spread to the other heads touching them. It also shouldn't smell very garlicky - if it does, at least one of the heads is starting to go off. And make sure the braid you're considering hasn't been on the wall of the shop for decoration; if it has, chances are it will be dried out (there's a big difference between being dry enough for storage and being desiccated). The best and cheapest place to buy garlic in Europe is from a vegetable vendor at an open-air market.