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Wednesday, 24 July, 2002, 07:18 GMT 08:18 UK
Garlic baron bounces back
Garlic ready to harvest
Mild, wet weather has made this a bumper crop

For a tangible symbol of how much Britain has changed in the past three decades, take the humble garlic bulb.

Things you didn't know about garlic
Each American ate 3.1 pounds of garlic in 1999, a threefold increase since 1989
Some argue that garlic can help with high blood pressure, cholesterol, impotence, pregnancy, diabetes, colds, heart problems and even cancer
China and South Korea are currently locked in a trade war over garlic
Gilroy, California, claims to be the garlic capital of the world
29 cities - almost all in the US and Canada - now hold garlic festivals
During World War II, British doctors treated battle wounds with garlic
Rarely tasted thirty years ago, it crept onto British menus with those 1970s stalwarts, Chicken Kiev and garlic bread.

But it was always regarded with suspicion - too piquant, too European and above all too bad for the breath to catch on.

Now - mainly thanks to the twin assault of curries and celebrity chefs - you can't get away from the stuff, and according to Colin Boswell, the south of England now eats more garlic per head than France.

Mr Boswell should know: for the past three decades he has been Britain's biggest, sometimes even its only, commercial garlic farmer.

Length and strength

You smell Mr Boswell's farm, near Newchurch on the Isle of Wight, before you get to it.

The long, strong Solent Wight
After a mild and moist growing season, this year's garlic is lush and ready for cropping.

"It has a bouquet, a roundness; it has a length and a strength to it," he purrs, snatching up bunches of it from the sodden ground.

Mr Boswell is probably the only man in Britain to have built up a nationwide garlic business twice over.

His first incarnation was in the 1970s, when he was looking for ways to boost revenues at his parents' sweetcorn farm on the Isle of Wight.

Garlic - then an expensive rarity - seemed a natural cash-crop.

"We did our sums, we looked at the prices, we worked out the yields. We thought - this is a doddle," he says.

Garlic baron...

And so it proved, at least at first.

Colin Boswell
Mr Boswell has become a critic of the supermarkets
Mr Boswell quickly became something of a garlic baron, signing up supply deals with Tesco, then Marks & Spencer, Safeway and Sainsbury's.

At his peak, he was producing 100 tons of garlic a season, pushing his farm's turnover to an annual 10m, and had to lease land on neighbouring farms to meet demand.

He even - thanks to his contract with M&S - became the first farmer on record to export British garlic to France.

... comes a cropper

But farming fortunes are built on precarious foundations.

Mr Boswell quotes Macbeth: "Here's a farmer, that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty."

Garlic drying
Mr Boswell's farm operates on a smaller scale now
The pressure of keeping up with an ever-growing supermarket order book pushed Mr Boswell into cutting corners.

In 1999, he was found guilty of breaching guidelines on the use of pesticides and was fined 220,000.

Facing financial ruin, Mr Boswell sold his business, and became a passionate opponent of supermarket power in the process.

"Supermarkets certainly perform a practical function - but they also tend to direct the population along certain lines," he says.

"Anybody with half a brain will react against being directed."

Market economics

Chastened, Mr Boswell has now started again, on a far more modest scale.

He's hoping to produce about three tons of garlic this year, with fewer than a couple of dozen workers at the height of the picking season.

Garlic can be good for your health
His five children help sell the garlic at up to 20 farmers' markets a week across the south of England, and as far north as Stratford-upon -Avon.

These are good times for garlic: prices are high, thanks to reduced plantings around Europe and patchy supply from China, the world's main exporter.

And Mr Boswell is at least master of his own destiny again.

"We're selling at slightly less than the supermarket equivalent price, but we are taking the supermarkets' margin, which is substantial."

Back to garlic's roots

More to the point, the farmers' market experience is taking garlic back to its pleasurable roots.

Pickled garlic with curry
Only for strong stomachs
Mr Boswell has several different strains of garlic on the go, including his main crop Solent Wight, a pungent Auvergne garlic, and the massive but bland elephant garlic.

He is also developing an early-harvesting purple garlic, and a curious clumping variety that he says is closest to what grew wild in Central Asia millennia ago.

He has also thrown his weight behind the Isle of Wight Garlic Festival, an annual celebration of the noisome vegetable that expects to attract 25,000 people over two days this August.

"To many people, the smell of garlic is the smell of the comfortable life: you associate it with wine, food and conversation," he says.

Vive la difference

The British seem unable to enjoy it this simply, however.

In the same way that chocolate exerts a sensually addictive hold on its aficionados, so garlic attracts a somewhat fanatical following.

For the averagely keen, there are piled-up jars of garlic curry pickle in Mr Boswell's farm shop; for the true zealots, there's garlic beer - even garlic ice-cream.

"The English have a love of sweet-and-sour tastes," Mr Boswell says.

"Some North European people react violently to garlic.

"In Southern Europe, they have an appreciation of garlic, but they don't regard it as anything peculiar; North Europeans are fascinated by it, and a little afraid."

The British may be changing, but that doesn't mean they are likely to become normal any time soon.

Click here to go to Southampton
See also:

19 Jul 02 | Business
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