If you thought garlic was garlic, think again. If garlic farmer Colin Boswell has his way, we may soon be as discerning about selecting our flavour-giving bulbs as our wines and cheeses. Even if we don't all yet know our Purple Moldovan from our Rose de Lautrec, there's little doubt that we're becoming increasingly fond of the vegetable that Californians dub the stinking rose.
It's taken us a while. My father's generation, who survived largely on boiled vegetables, viewed garlic as a suspect French import whose chief characteristic was to cause indigestion and bad breath. He would have agreed with Horace, who likened the effects of "wicked garlic" to having a viper's venom raging in his frame. Or perhaps Dad took his cue from Mrs Beeton, who in 1861 wrote "the smell of this plant is generally considered offensive" and warned that "unless very sparingly used, the flavour is disagreeable to the English palate".
The 1950s saw the arrival of Elizabeth David and garlic bread. And then along came Colin Boswell. Colin saw that, after years in the gastronomic wilderness, we were ready for a culinary kick. "Having denied themselves for centuries the pleasure and benefit of garlic's sulphurous heat on the palate, Brits were screaming for it," he says. "They realised that garlic, like sex, made life a lot more exciting."
Reared on the family farm in Newchurch, in the Isle of Wight's fertile Arreton Valley, Colin knew about growing plants. As a boy he had grown radishes, and at the age of 11 scooped first prize for his primrose wine at the village show ("undertones of Sauternes", the judges declared). Whereas today's schoolboys might test their teachers' patience by texting under the tables, Colin's rebellion took the far more original form of chewing whole cloves of garlic in the classroom. "We chewed it to be obnoxious," he laughs. "I think we succeeded."
At university in Nottingham, where he studied agricultural economics, Colin and his housemates began a period of culinary experimentation – by his own admission because they couldn't find any girls to cook for them. "We bought a rabbit at the market and hung it by a clothes peg in the hall. I remember buying the garlic to cook it with – I was desperate to find any way to make food a bit more exciting. The result was a delicious lapin aux deux moutardes (rabbit in two mustards), which became a staple."
The decision to turn a passion into a livelihood was, as so often, an accident. The family needed another crop to grow besides sweetcorn. Some garlic that Colin's mother had planted in the garden had done well, so, in 1976, Colin decided to try growing it commercially. "We got some bulbs from the Auvergne in France and planted an acre by hand," he recalls. The timing was perfect as supermarkets were crying out for peeled-and-puréed garlic for ready meals of garlic bread and chicken Kiev.
Successful as the business was, it wasn't without teething problems. One day in the 1980s a bag of peeled cloves being transported by train exploded. "It was a hot summer day and the heat had created a gas which made the bag explode," says Colin. "They had to stop the mainline train from Portsmouth to London."
More than 30 years since planting his first garlic, Colin now cultivates 50 acres, producing up to 200 tonnes a year. "People always said garlic couldn't be grown in this country, but we've proved them wrong," he says, his voice offering a note of triumph.
"There's no denying that it can be challenging, especially if it's wet when we're harvesting and we can't leave the garlic in the sun to dry. Drying out garlic properly is essential to develop its flavour. This year has been a dream – we've had the perfect Mediterranean climate."
Colin and his family have opened a restaurant and a garlic farm shop, selling relishes and chutneys with clove-in-cheek names like Vampire's Revenge and Vampire's Delight that they make themselves, fresh garlic, locally made chocolate garlic and chilli ice-cream, garlic beer, and other garlicabilia. In August 1983 Colin started a Garlic Festival, complete with a Garlic Queen, which is now the island's biggest annual fixture after Cowes Week. This summer he is starting Garlic Walks to introduce visitors to the 15 or so varieties grown on the farm.
For Colin, the varieties are vital. "Consumers are realising that different varieties are good for different dishes. For example, Purple Moldovan has a really strong taste, so it is perfect for garlic bread." Buy your garlic butter from Tesco, and although the label doesn't say so, it's probably made with Colin's crop of Purple Moldovan.
But finding a choice of garlics can be difficult. Supermarkets are likely to offer only Chinese or Spanish bulbs – often giving no variety name other than the not very enlightening "White" – that will often have been kept in cold store for months. "Most people will only have ever eaten the Spanish stuff, or Chinese garlic, which has very little taste. It's a shame," says Colin. "There are as many types of garlic as places garlic is grown – literally thousands. But as trade becomes more globalised, these are in danger of being lost."
Every year Colin roams the world in search of varieties as close as possible to the original garlic, believed to have grown in the Tian Shan region straddling the borders of China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. So while others are sunning themselves in Salcombe or Saint-Tropez, Colin's idea of a holiday is traipsing around obscure (and often dangerous) parts of the world looking for new varieties he can take home to cultivate. "Colin would go mad lying on a beach," laughs his wife, Jenny. "He needs a purpose, preferably a garlicky one."
Colin's most recent Garlic Tour was to Georgia, in central Asia, where I joined him, Jenny, and assorted garlic gurus in scouring peasant gardens and mountainsides for novel varieties of cultivated and wild alliums, the family to which garlic belongs. Many people will associate Georgia with its superb wines, but its garlics are as abundant and healthy as its vines. As well as being a central ingredient in the country's cuisine – often mixed with walnuts and spices to create an exquisite paste – it also has an important parallel use as an antiseptic and remedy for a wide range of ailments, just as it used to in Britain.
Using a combination of botanical Latin and Jenny's rusty degree-level Russian to communicate, we rooted for bulbs in gardens, combed market stalls, and nibbled on fiery cloves for seven delicious days. The burning question was: had the country's ancient varieties survived, or had Chinese garlic taken over? Happily, we found Georgian garlic alive and kicking (if you'll excuse the pun). None had proper names so we jotted down the names of the villages we found them in, including Gori, birthplace of Joseph Stalin.
As we returned through UK customs, I wondered if the sniffer dogs would pick up the strings of garlic nestling among the dusty clothes in Colin's luggage. Luckily they didn't. So maybe one day we'll see Gori Glory or Georgian White in the shops alongside Purple Moldovan and Spanish Morado. Vampires had better watch out.
To order garlic, find out more, or to check details of this year's Garlic Festival (14-15 August) go to thegarlicfarm.co.uk
Garlic varieties to look out for
Rose de Lautrec
In France, where it originates, it is considered the ultimate ail de cuisine. Has deep purple cloves with a creamy, smooth flavour. Usually sold in a grappe or posy.
Originally from Kazakhstan, its fat, easy-to-peel cloves have a fiery taste that makes this variety ideal for garlic bread.
This garlic, with 10 to 12 fat cloves per bulb, is one of the types you're most likely to find in the supermarket. Morado means purple, referring to the purplish-brown colouring of the cloves.
With its white-skinned bulbs with black veins mapping the outside, this looks and tastes great. Cloves are deep purple, large, and easy to peel. Good for garlic bread too.
The Garlic Farm's original garlic, developed from strains imported from the Auvergne in France. Has nice bouquet with length and strength. Bulbs have 12 or more cloves, and are ideal for plaiting. Keeps well.
The type of garlic you'll see woven into plaits in markets throughout the region of France it is named for. Its large, sweet, fat cloves are perfect for Mediterranean-style vegetable and fish dishes.
Not a true garlic but a leek with a gentle garlic aroma which is lovely roasted or baked. Bulbs can grow up to 110mm across – the size of a grapefruit – so this bulb has plenty of wow factor. Dubbed the Fat Imposter, it's popular with shoppers – particularly in the US – who are governed by eye rather than palette. At £3-£5 per bulb, it's not cheap, but it's guaranteed to impress. Elephant Garlic grows wild throughout Europe, but the large strain grown by Colin probably came from south-east Asia.
Not a variety, this refers to garlic when it's still green, before it dries and its strength intensifies. Has a delightful spring-like zing instead of the usual sulphurous burn. Perfect in stir fries, chopped in salads, grated on dishes or lightly cooked.
Colin Boswell's garlic tips
Buying: choose heads that are plump and unbruised, not soft or soggy. Make sure they show no signs of sprouting.
Choosing varieties: try to select a variety that matches the nationality of the dish you are cooking. For example, if you are cooking a Chinese stir fry, a Chinese garlic is fine. If you're doing a coq au vin or a bouillabaisse, plump for French varieties like Provence or Rose de Lautrec.
When to buy: to ensure it's fresh, buy garlic as soon as possible after harvesting, usually around August. That said, garlic keeps well – usually up to 10 months depending on variety – but don't expect it to last for ever. Hang garlic plaits in a well-aired, dry place – never in the fridge, where it will sprout.
Cooking: when frying, the most common crime is to burn garlic, which gives it a horrible acrid taste. If a recipe says to add onion and garlic, always cook the onion first, then add garlic at the last minute.
Eating raw: remember, the more finely you chop and crush the cloves, the stronger your garlic will taste.
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