Monday, 4 May 2015

The Garlic Farm (Part 6 )

This is my penultimate post about The Garlic Farm (at present).  Colin Boswell, the owner who comes from a farming family and where three generations have carved out a living in the heart of the Isle of Wight. Yet the drive and determination of this most visionary farmer has made The Garlic Farm more famous for growing a wider range of garlic than anywhere in Europe. The catalyst is all down to a little known story during World War II.

Elephant Garlic

Amazingly, garlic was first grown in Egypt about 5,000 years ago before spreading east and north. It was almost certainly grown on the Island during the Roman times, and through the Middle Ages. But there was no indigenous industry here. During the second-world war, the French crews of a flotilla of ships were stationed in Cowes, where they drank in the Painter’s Arms. The publican, Bill Spidy also ran a small Island farm, next door to Mersley (the site of The Garlic Farm).

The French couldn’t stand our dull English food, and pleaded with the publican for some garlic. He didn’t have any but two of his RAF mates were seconded to the S.O.E (Special Operations Executive). On October 27th 1942, a Lysander flew to Auvergne delivering two agents and picked up two sacks of garlic, which duly made their way back to the Island. Bill Spidy planted the garlic and kept the French happy for the rest of the war.

When Colin's mother, Norah arrived at Mersley in the mid 1950s, she got access to the garlic stock; and started growing it herself in the kitchen garden. Back then his parents ran a family farm growing sweetcorn, while he worked in London in marketing. But in 1976, aged 24 he left his job to return to his roots on the family farm with his new wife Jenny, who gave up her job in the city.   They were then supplying the supermarket Tesco, but we wanted to find another crop to grow.

Garlic had an excitement and curiosity about it. During the 70s, bistros were bursting with garlic on the menu and garlic was de rigeur. Both of them were also devotees of the cookery writer, Elizabeth David and used her recipes from her book, “French Provincial Cooking”. Garlic was one of the key ingredients. 

During the hot summer of 76, his mother produced a bumper crop of excellent quality garlic, which was far superior to what was stocked on the supermarket shelves. So they started to grow it, then as demand outstripped us, they began to import it to sell to the major supermarkets. During the 1980s there was such an explosion of public demand for garlic bread and chicken Kiev. It was said there were more people in southeast England eating garlic, than in Northern France.

By the late 90s, they sold the business that supplied supermarkets in order to concentrate on selling directly to the burgeoning numbers of farm shops and farmers markets.  In 2001 they opened their own farm shop and launched a website and now they sell direct to the public in over 1000 farm shops and delis all over Britain and also export garlic.  They supply locally to the
supermarkets, even Fortnum & Mason are stocking their Elephant garlic.

Colin and I travelled in his jeep to several of the garlic fields.  Nowadays, the farm has 350 arces with 150k plants per hectare here (1 ha = 2.5 acres).

This is the Elephant garlic plant and my first photograph is the harvested bulb of that variety.   Planting for this variety is the first to be planted and done in September finishing with the Solvent Wight in February.  Harvest starts with the Elephant garlic in May and finishes at the end of July when the Solvent Wight goes weak at the knees'!

There is a seasonal team on hand to help with the harvest. 
Harvesting, cleaning, grading, plaiting and grapping are all done by hand,
 no small task!

I am showing you another variety of garlic that grows in a prostrate manner.

Preliminary studies suggest that garlic consumption may reduce the risk of developing several types of cancer, 
especially cancers of the gastrointestinal tract.

There was garlic growing as far as the eye could see.

Aerial view of the Garlic Farm buildings.

What I had not expected to find on The Garlic Farm were Neolithic flints and scrapers and I was thrilled when Colin found quite a number when we were walking around the fields.  These are 5000 years old!

He has invited me back when I am next on the Isle of Wight and he is going take me on an archaeological tour.  

                                   The Garlic Farm stands on a Roman Estate.  

                              Over the years he has found pieces of 
                                 painted wall plaster and roof tiles. 

            Also a mortarium which is a course based bowl for grinding vegetables                  and meat.  All this indicates an affluent and settled community.

There is so much more to tell and show you about The Garlic Farm however I will desist until I return again. 

In the meantime I will leave you with a living Willow Garlic Sculpture.  

I hope you have enjoyed knowing more about the history of 

Tomorrow I will show you the birds I found as I travelled round the farm.

Thanks for your visit and the comments you leave on this post.


  1. Those flints and scrapers were an incredible find. Love garlic too. Lots and lots of garlic.

  2. Hari OM
    Fascinating history of the journey of garlic in the UK! YAM xx

  3. I am thinking of all the yummy recipes to come from the garlic.

  4. Love those flints and scrapers, great finds. So interesting.

  5. really a wonderful place and a wonderful host to show you around! enjoyed this!

  6. How interesting - and that's a LOT of Garlic. :)

  7. Hi Margaret,
    You can create delicious recipes with garlic, I love it.
    I wish you a beautiful new week.

  8. I love it! Especially the big garlic bulb made of willow! And the old pictures, your first shot of the beautiful garlic, that elevates it. So cool about all the relics! Lots and lots of history here.

  9. Love the story of how they started with growing garlic. Love all the images!

  10. Margaret,
    I give you the title, "The Garlic Historian".
    What a lovely write-up about the Garlic Farm!
    Wonderful photos, lovely narration - well done!!
    Have a Wonderful Day!
    Peace :)

  11. What a great story and a very interesting series of posts on the garlic farm. Thank you Margaret, your blog has always been a lot of fun to visit.

  12. Never realised there was actually different varieties of garlic. Funny in time of war the SOE after dropping off French resistance picked up bags of garlic. It's like a script from Dads Army :-)

  13. A fascinating story!
    Have a great day!

  14. Such an exceptional post! Thoroughly enjoyed the series.