Bank Holiday weekends are to be spent exploring, especially for some of the staff at Farmer’s Choice. Easter was spent on the Isle of Wight visiting many of our producers. One of those was the Garlic Farm, Mersley Farm at Newchurch.
Nestled in a sheltered position below Mersley Down the Garlic Farm is surrounded by unspoilt scenery. The Farm itself is a working farm growing garlic and asparagus, has a shop, restaurant and holiday cottages. If you were to walk up to the top of the chalk ridge you would be rewarded with views of the Island, over the Solent to England and far across the channel.
Before we started our tour of the farm and its many fields, Colin (Boswell) sat us in the restaurant where we were treated to a cheeky red squirrel feeding just outside. Unfortunately, the little fella was too quick, I failed to get a photo but I am sure if you visit, you will see him…with a never ending supply of nuts, he won’t stray too far!
Colin starts by telling us the story of the Garlic Farm – Back in the 1950’s his parents moved to the Isle of Wight to take over the running of the farm. His mother was a keen gardener and admirer of the inspirational food writer Elizabeth David who introduced post-war Britain to the rich world of Mediterranean food. She was inspired to conjure up the tastes of Italy and France in her own kitchen but soon realised that a courgette, an aubergine and a garlic bulb were still considered aliens specimens by shopkeepers in the local town. She made room in her kitchen garden and began her search for good garlic planting stock. She soon realised she didn’t have to go very far to get this.
Garlics association with the Isle of Wight begins 30 years prior to this. The island was being used as a base by the Free French Forces during the Second World War. A neighbouring farmer had owned a pub in Cowes which was popular with French fighters, and missing the taste of home, they asked if he might grow some garlic for them. The neighbour had friends in the RAF who at that time were flying Lysanders in and out of German-occupied Auvergne in Central France, delivering and collecting members of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). He persuaded a couple of them to slip a few bulbs into their packs and so the first garlic bulbs were brought back to take root in the Island.
Thirty years later his mother started her first trails with this very same stock. In the late 70s Colin and his wife Jenny joined the family business. It’s now a thriving business with the entire family involved, but in the beginning, to get the brand ‘out there’ they used to drop the kids up to London, and get them selling on the streets and at The Borough Market. Not necessary now, they get on average, around 200,000 visitors to the farm every year!
After a cup of tea, we are taken to the fields of Garlic spread out around the Island.
Colin explains about the different varieties.
Green Garlic – Before garlic has fully matured, it can be harvested as green or ‘wet’ garlic. The papery dividers between the cloves have only just started to form, the bulb can be eaten whole, together with the stem. Milder than mature garlic, much like a spring onion. Goes very well in salads.
Hardneck – Produces a flower but this must be snapped off almost as soon as it appears to encourage the plants resources to go back down towards the bulb.
Softnecks – Produces a softer stem with no flowers, more cloves to a bulb and bunched together in tight circles. Varieties include, Early Purple White and Large Provence. This would be the better bulb/clove to cook with, more powerful and will carry on into any dish.
A new field is a must for planting out fresh garlic and luckily the Island has plenty of available space for this.
Harvest time – they used to do this by hand – that’s some back breaking work, but they now have a machine that does it. The machine picks up 2 rows of garlic at a time, gives it a good shake and bags it, right there in the field.
The Garlic Farm currently has up to 40 acres of garlic fields.
Garlic is best kept somewhere dry, to prevent mould, at room temperature, to inhibit sprouting, and somewhere with good air circulation. A clay pot with ventilation holes is ideal. Avoid plastic to prevent mould and only store green garlic in the fridge.
Colin says that as a nation we have become attuned to the garlic odour, that back in the 1980’s if we had got on a bus or train and someone in that carriage had eaten garlic, it would have been overpowering. Maybe it’s just that everyone is eating it now, not only for its taste but for its documented medicinal properties, that we don’t seem to notice it as much or at all.
Serving Suggestions – Stuff a broken down blub of garlic inside a chicken and roast as normal. Then, when you take the chicken out of the oven, remove the cloves, squeeze out the garlic flesh and rub all over the chicken, serve!
Garlic Origins – garlic has been established in many cultures for thousands of years. It is believed that it originates from the hills of Tien Shan (China-Kazakhstan border), as wild garlic. The first records of garlic were in 3,000BC in Ancient Egypt. In 42AD there are records of the arrival of garlic in Britain with the Roman Conquest and 1975 The Garlic Farm on the Isle of Wight. It is due to Colin’s investigative work that the garlic grown on the island is the same species that was found in Tien Shan.