GARLIC A GO GO by Sally Kindberg
Simplyfood website 2000

It was sunny, I was on the Isle of Wight, and there was a band playing loud music. Interesting smells wafted underneath my nose and I was talking to a tomato.

No, I hadn't been transported back in time to one of the Island's famous Sixties Pop events. I was at the sixteenth annual Isle of Wight Garlic Festival, and the rosy-cheeked girl in the tomato costume was doing her bit to promote one of the Island's other famous food products.

This giant garlic do is held in a field at Fighting Cocks Crossroads near Newchurch, 2 and a half miles inland from Sandown on the east coast. I was on my way to meet Colin Boswell, owner of the U.K.'s only commercial garlic farm and the man who started it all.

Powerful scents of the strong stuff led me past gleaming, multicoloured funfair apparatus. It's probably best to have a go on the Earthshaker before rather than after sampling garlic-flavoured Hot Prawnies (£6 for a Piggy Portion), or swigging garlic lemonade from Mr. Squeeze-It. There were over 250 stalls on-site, many with a garlic theme. It's not all stalls though - kilted bandsmen mingled with magicians, dog display teams, soldiers, falconers and of course, the tomato.

Colin, urbane, charming and energetic, was with his wife and family, busily putting the last touches to their display in the Garlic Marquee. Elegant plaits and grappes (bunches) hung from wooden trelliswork. The grappes are bound into different sizes - this year the grapping was done with the help of young Ukrainians and Lithuanians visiting on a student scheme. Trestle tables were laden with chutney, oak-smoked garlic honey and Transylvanian pickle. It's said the honey encourages longevity, and the pickle's just the job for keeping vampires away, naturally. Smoked garlic, with its distinctive oaky, nutty flavour, is an increasingly popular product. A side item on sale was bread made by the local baker from 2,200 year old wheat recently discovered by an archeologist on Boswell land. A little past its sell-by date perhaps? But Colin's not one to miss a marketing opportunity.

The first Festival was sponsored by Colin. It was set up in1984 to raise money for sports and school amenities in Newchurch, a village with strong Non-conformist traditions of community spirit. The Festival now combines charity fund-raising with Island produce PR.

After a run-in with the H.S.E. over pesticide usage a couple of years ago, Colin sold his big trading business to the Shropshire Group last year and is now going organic. "You could say I've seen the light," he explained, with an ironic gleam in his eye.

Previously his company Mersley Farm owned 1200 Island acres, had 300 employees and supplied its own and imported garlic toTesco and Marks & Spencer. Today Colin has 250 acres and produces up to 30 tonnes of garlic a year which he harvests with the help of family and part-time labour. A third of this summer harvest is put into coldstore until the following spring. Colin's mother grew the first bulbs on the Island over 20 years ago. Types of garlic change as each crop adapts vegetatively to the climate and soil conditions of a particular area. The mild, sunny climate of the Island - it averages 1,741 sunshine hours a year - had obviously had its effect on the plump white bulbs hanging in the Garlic Marquee.

Colin now sells at Farmers' Markets on the Island and in London. At weekends he travels to the mainland by the ferry. There's a family Farm Shop, and he's just started selling on the net. He's an Independent Councillor for the Newchurch area, a member of the Garlic Festival and the Economic Development of Tourism and Leisure Services Committees. His mobile rang constantly. I asked him how things had changed since he'd sold his larger business. "It's a more relaxed way of life," he said, a trifle unconvincingly.

I joined the throng of curious visitors - there were 17,000 that weekend - eager to test their taste-buds. Garlic hot-dogs were being washed down with beer (with garlic) and Rumpy Pumpy Scrumpy (without). I tried some icecream - a sickly combination of vanilla and the bulb. Unimpressed, and ignoring neat packages of fudge flavoured with - guess what? - I left the marquee to get some air. I cleared my palate by tomato-sampling on the Wight Salads stall, nibbling a few delicious Baby Plum Santas. The Island produces 60% of the U.K.'s cherry tomato crop - that sunlight again - and all pollinated by imported Belgian bumble bees, I was told.

Later, back to garlic. Island Mustards produces an excellent variation on the theme. A mustard with a delicate but tangy flavour, it can be sampled at Brighton Pavilion cafe if you can't reach the Island. Then - there was garlic chicken, bread, mushrooms, potatoes and yes, even garlic popcorn on offer. By the end of the day, I was all garlic-ed out.

I headed for a tea-tent. Call me conventional, but I preferred my cup of tea without the garlic factor....

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