Yorkshire yields it's first commercial garlic crop in Thirsk

Meet the people behind Yorkshire's first garlic crop and discover where to find the wild kind. Our food and drink consultant Annie Stirk reports Photographs by Andy Bulmer

Garlic, normally associated with warmer, Mediterranean climes, back gardens and allotment plots, is now being grown commercially in the UK, including Yorkshire. Mark and Moira Palmer, from Copperwheat Agriculture, planted their first crop of the pungent alliums at their farm in Thirsk a year or so ago, and – sown, pulled and trimmed by hand – it’s an unusual but truly local crop that’s really taken off.

‘With China, France and Spain exporting more than 10 million tones a year, garlic has always been widely and cheaply available, so there’s never really been any need to grow it here,’ says Mark. ‘But the climate has changed, allowing us to grow it on a more commercial scale, and as more people demand food that’s not shipped around the world, there’s a real gap in the market.’

Although it may seem a new concept, garlic was in fact introduced to Britain by the Romans and has been a cook’s staple for millennia. The bulbous vegetable was praised in ancient Sanskrit writings, the Egyptians buried it with their dead and by 1500BC it had spread across the world – it even turned up in the medieval court of Richard II. But by the 19th century, Mrs Beeton was describing it as ‘offensive’ and for most of the 20th century you barely caught a whiff of it in the domestic kitchen.

Cheap flights and package holidays changed our perceptions, and Britain soon rediscovered garlic’s pungent charms, using it in everything from curries to casseroles, stir-fries and soups. Coupled with a renewed thirst for traceable, local produce, British-grown garlic is set to become a great household favourite.

Mark, a former farm manager and consultant, who has travelled all over the country giving other farmers advice, has had to face a few challenges of his own this time around. As well as being an expensive crop to grow – the seeds, or bulbs, are pricey and the yields generally low – Mark and Moira have to do all the sowing by hand because specialist machinery is too expensive for their small-scale production.

‘We grow soft necks here, which have been bred to be more suitable for the British climate but although the bulbs are fairly robust (in fact, they need cold weather to activate), they’re not the easiest of crops,’ says Mark. ‘They don’t like being stressed, so any intensely wet or dry conditions – rather like last summer – can mean the papery skin won’t develop and they split.’

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The bulbs, planted in late autumn take more than six weeks to swell and divide into the familiar segments we know as cloves. When the leaves begin to yellow and die off, this signifies they are ready to be harvested and the bulbs are sent off to a dry store at a specific temperature and humidity.

‘You have to pull them at just the right time as they soon go over and spoil. Drying the bulbs can be hard too because you need a good warm summer,’ says Mark. ‘All the bulbs have to be trimmed by hand. One person, working very hard, gets through around four to five kilos an hour.’

And as one of only a handful of commercial garlic growers in the UK (in Yorkshire, garlic growing is largely limited to a few market gardeners and box schemes), there are not many people Mark can ask for advice. ‘I’m always experimenting with new varieties and different planting regimes. It’s just a case of wait and see how it all develops.’

Mark’s experiments have recently led him to start growing and selling green garlic too –immature garlic that is harvested whole (leaves and bulb), like a small leek, and pulled before the bulb dries off and splits into cloves. ‘It tastes like garlic but it’s far less intense and can be eaten raw (obviously, if you’re really keen you can eat mature garlic raw) and it can be used to flavour all sorts of dishes,’ says Mark, who admits that wife Moira does most of the experimenting in the kitchen. ‘You can roast it whole or chop it up like an onion and it gives a sweet, zing of garlic to your meals – it has a taste all of its own.’

And it seems Yorkshire’s chefs agree. Mark now supplies several Michelin starred chefs in the county. ‘Chefs like it because it’s something green and fresh and in season from March to April when there’s not much else about.

They use the bulbs whole and it can give a tremendously sweet kick to dishes,’ says Mark. ‘After all, why get your garlic from Asia, when you can get it in Yorkshire.’

Wild garlic facts

What: Ramsons or wild garlic is a bulbous perennial herb with striking star-shaped flowers and lily-of-the-valley shaped leaves, generally found in shady woodlands from April to June. Also known as ‘allim ursinum’, ‘stink bombs’ and ‘stinking nannies’, they often densely carpet a woodland floor creating pungent walkways beneath the canopy.

Where: Wild garlic is abundant in Yorkshire from the Dales and moors to the coast and valleys including Malhamdale, in North Yorkshire; the National Trust’s Malham Tarn Estate in the Yorkshire Dales; McIntosh Park, Knaresborough and Millington Woods, East Yorkshire. For a salty and garlic kick in one hit, a seaside meander through the glorious Valley Gardens and Woodland Centre in Saltburn is a must for its drifts of bluebells and wild garlic.

How to eat: The leaves, flowers and bulbs, which look a little like cultivated garlic, are edible – though if you’re going to dig them up, you should seek the landowner’s permission first. Chop into soups, salads and sprinkle over just-boiled new potatoes or mash garlic to make a pesto with the usual mix of olive oil, lemon, Parmesan and pine nuts.

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