We have grown garlic on the Isle of Wight for over fifty years and a large part of our enthusiasm and specialism in this crop is due to our close relationships with partner farms in Europe. Pioneered by my father-in-law, Colin, alliances with growers in France, Spain decades ago and more recently, the fringes of Eastern Europe have been nurtured over many miles, meals and adventures. The sharing of knowledge and techniques can be a challenge across borders and languages but the ability to accelerate a learning curve outweighs obstacles.
My first trip to our partner growers in the La Mancha region of Spain recently was a journey, in every sense.
The Madrid-Barajas terminal is a striking flash of yellow amongst pale timber and steel. The building, opened in 2006, was a design collaboration between a Spanish and British architect.
South of Madrid, the 'La Mancha' region was allegedly chosen by Miguel de Cervantes as the origin of his hero Don Quixote because of the unlikeliness of a romantic, chivalrous character to herald from an area so ordinary. I personally found the windmills, castles and rolling plains to be far from dull and given that the film director Pedro Almódovar, born in the region, has generated some of the most stunning cinematography in history, I think this region fruits beauty beyond great bulbs of garlic.
We specialise in growing garlic, in the UK as well as overseas because we want more people to eat more of it. This is partly because garlic has the most powerful ability to deliver strong flavour but also because it can help bring out the other flavours of a dish (not to mention the health benefits – see here).
To my mind, part of the fabric of Spanish culture is fuelled by 'Gambas al Ajilo' (garlic prawns) and 'Patatas Bravas' (potato with tomato and garlic). These two dishes deliver garlic as both the hero as well as the supporting actor. They are, arguably, among the most widespread of Spain's cultural products and for me, among the most delicious ways to enjoy both the sulphurous top notes of piquant garlic as well as the mellow sweetness in combination.
As well as growing garlic in Spain, to supplement our home-grown crop and extend seasonality, we also bring seed garlic back to the UK for our 'trial beds' here at the farm on the Isle of Wight. Part of our goal is to encourage as many kitchen gardeners, horticultural enthusiasts, small-holders, chefs and other 'garlic-curious' groups and individuals to grow their own. Working with partner farms not only enables us to bring in 'clean' seed (key to a good crop) but also helps us learn about growing conditions. (Look out for my wife Natasha's upcoming entry about seed garlic from France and the similarities of soil type).
They say the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plains and La Mancha, being the biggest and fed by five rivers, does receive water so is only semi-arid. This, in combination with free draining soil provides a good environment for, among other crops, wheat and barley which both work well in rotation with garlic. The soil, to touch is about as perfect as one could hope for and the partners we work with have very specialist expertise in looking after the nutrient content so our garlic has the best possible flavour.
There has been much discussion over the EU referendum and until things settle, there's likely to be considerably more. What this recent trip did highlight was the benefit of transferring the collaborative work begun by Colin, the UK's original garlic farmer (if we're allowed to give him that title) down to the next generation and beyond. It is my hope that partnering closely with our European garlic growers long into the future will enable us to continue with the European Union long beyond the word Brexit has faded from our column inches.
Blog entry by Barnes (The Garlic Farmer's son-in-law)