Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The Dorset Garlic Farmer Taking the UK by Storm

The morning I call Mark Botwright on his mobile phone, he is standing in a garlic field in Dorset. It is a field he has come to dominate as the UK’s #1 garlic farmer. Along the way, his garlic has won plaudits from Nigella Lawson, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Yotam Ottolenghi, Michel Roux, Mark Hix and others, and he’s won Great Taste awards for the last four years. To be honest, I’m a bit surprised that the man who’s been on the BBC, US and Canadian TV and in all the papers has spared the time for a nascent local food blog, but it soon becomes clear. This farmer loves talking about garlic.

Mark Botwright South West Garlic Farm
© Tom Moggach for New Covent Garden Market
How South West Garlic began
The story of how South West Garlic Farm started is now the stuff of legend. Mark’s wife, Wendy, gave him three garlic cloves as a gift when his main business was livestock farming. 19 years later, and the farm is now growing 90,000 elephant garlic bulbs on 10 acres near Bridport. Along the way, it’s become an obsession, and the farm close to being the leading producer in Europe.

If Hollywood were to turn his story into a movie, there would be a great montage sequence of planting and picking garlic, cut with shots of standing out in the Dorset drizzle. All the ingredients are there for an uplifting feelgood blockbuster.

For a start, it’s a story of triumph over adversity. Prior to turning his hand to garlic, Mark was a livestock farmer with 600 head of sheep. “I’ve always been in farming, so there’s never been any money involved or the money to buy anything,” he jokes. Then Mark injured his back, and foot and mouth looked set to deliver the final blow. But Mark had plans for the 100 or so bulbs he’d been growing on the farm at that point.

A change of focus
So a livestock farmer became Mark the Garlic. Almost two decades later, the animals he does keep on the farm are for providing fertiliser. “We’re trying to become bio dynamic,” he says, “so that everything has a job to do. The cattle are here to produce meat, but also to produce top quality manure. The whole process has now gone full circle.”

In many ways, his success has taken him by surprise. “For 16 years, all I did was grow garlic to produce seeds to keep going forward,” he explains. “But about five years ago, I knew that by 2016 I would be holding probably the largest seed stock of elephant garlic in the world. In two years’ time, we’ll be at our peak. We’ll be producing two million bulbs of elephant garlic.”

A global phenomenon
That means that every day Mark is fielding calls from all over the world, as well as appearing on TV. “The other day there was a lady who’d been writing a paper just about garlic for five years,” he says. I suspect he gives anyone who does call as much time as they need, whether it’s to give advice on storage and growing, or recipes.

“Garlic is easy to grow but I get emails every day from people asking me why they can’t grow it. It’s incredibly hardy and I think people mess around with it too much,” he explains.

The Black Garlic revolution
Any dreams of a quiet life were crushed when Mark ‘discovered’ black garlic. It’s been a sensation.
“I needed to find a way of having product to sell in the winter when times are harder and we’d sold out of summer stock,” he says.  

Black garlic

“That’s when I found the 4,000 year old recipe for the black garlic. We were looking for a way to preserve the garlic without adding anything to it and we don’t do any refrigeration. It’s as natural as possible. I found this recipe online and it took me three and a half years to perfect it. It was designed for putting garlic in earthernware pots and leaving them out in the sunshine. That doesn’t really work in the UK.”

Found most commonly in Korean cuisine, black garlic uses fermentation to preserve the garlic head. It’s been called the ‘new truffles’ with a taste that is not really that garlicky, but sweet, earthy and tangy.

“I took it around to lots of festivals and they thought it was amazing. Chefs had no idea what it was. They all thought it was garlic in balsamic vinegar,” he says.  

Next up is garlic sea salt. “We harvested a lot of wild garlic in the spring and made the product,” he says. “We gave it six to eight months to see how we performs, and now have 200 kilos to start selling next week [late November].”
The wonderful world of garlic
At the moment, South West Garlic farm grows Garlic Scapes, Elephant, Morado and Iberian Fresh Garlic. Scapes are the long, thin stalks of the garlic flower with a peppery flavour and texture like asparagus.

“They’re incredibly popular,” Mark says. “We have to grow six times more garlic each year just to keep up with demand. But the window for the whole crop is just four weeks and they only produce one scape per plant.”

“We’re trying to steer away from the Mediterranean varieties which are the Morado and the Iberian. They’re very fussy soft neck varieties. We’re going now for more hardnecks. Russian-style Elephant garlic which love the cold weather. They just seem to do better. I prefer them. They look nicer and they have more flavour because they’ve been in the ground longer.”

Ah, yes. The flavour. I ask Mark why it is that the garlic I buy from the supermarket has almost no perceptible flavour or aroma.

Getting garlic wrong
“We don’t supply supermarkets,” he points out. “The reason the garlic you’re having is bad is because it’s probably spent 9 to 10 months in a chiller fridge with inert gases, and it’s lost its way.”

Most of the garlic that finds its way onto our shelves is from China. “There’s two papers been written about growing practises in China because they use human waste as a fertilizer and we don’t know how treated that waste has been. A lot of UK farmers apply human waste but it’s so well treated you might think it’s mud. But that’s generally put on fields where wheat or barley is grown for animal feed.

“They were also caught bleaching some of their white varieties. Garlic can get staining on the skin from different soil types, like a heavy clay. They were bleaching them because people prefer nice clear looking stuff. We’ve been brainwashed.” Aesthetic appeal is also the reason why bulbs are sold without a root. “It’s so mechanically processed,” says Mark. “That’s just what they do with chopping the roots off, to prettify it.”

Planting the seed
While Mark’s wife Wendy can take credit for sowing the seeds of an idea, I’m still curious to know what drives the garlic farmer. “I like growing things,” he says. “I love keeping animals and being in the outdoors. I’m standing in a field right now. It’s freezing but I’d rather be out here than indoors. But I’m inspired by my grandfather. I’m 53 now and I was messing around in his garden from when I was about three. I was always fascinated. He was an incredibly good vegetable grower.”

He also adds a poignant coda to his story. “I lost my parents when I was 21 and they’re definitely up there watching. Any time I plant something in the ground, the next day it always rains.”

Spreading the word
Like many other people I’m sure, I first came across Mark the Garlic by following his prodigious Twitter output and following the links to his website. Even garlic growers need to master social media.  
“I’m completely self-taught,” he says. “You’ve just got to keep banging away. I never think ‘why am I doing this?’ We’ve got about 11,000 followers. I link to other stories to educate people and make them aware of what’s going on, and share recipes. I speak to a lot of people about black garlic and I’d say 99.9% of people have never heard of it so I’ve got a long, long way to go. I get people contacting me from all over the world wanting to talk to me about it.”

Once I’ve come to the end of my questions, I let Mark get back to keeping the crows off his garlic. I wouldn’t mind betting that he’ll hardly make a few steps before his phone rings again, with another list of questions at the other end of the line. And I’m just as sure that he would answer them all with the same enthusiasm.

If you’d like to leave a comment or share a garlic tip, please do so below. Or if you’ve got a story to tell, get in touch on editor@dorsetgourmet.com

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Wednesday, 9 November 2016

The Rise of the Assassin Food Blogger

Gone are the days when a single review could make or break a restaurant. OK, the occasional masterpiece finds a wider-than-normal audience, such as The New York Times’ legendary takedown of Guy Fieri’s American Bar & Kitchen. But the era when chefs such as Marco Pierre White and Raymond Blanc waited anxiously for the verdict of Egon Ronay and friends is largely over. And those were the good times. Instead, chefs today suffer a daily death by a thousand cuts.

We’re all food critics now 
Search any restaurant online, and the scattergun opinions on TripAdvisor or Yelp will inevitably have commandeered the top search ranking. And what horrors await. For the most part, a masterclass in anonymous, passive-aggressive spleen. Spiteful, deranged eviscerations from the keyboard from customers who barely raised a heckle in front of their plate. Bizarre, contradictory venting that reminds you of the line from Annie Hall:

“Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.”
“Yeah, I know. And such small portions.”

Understandably, chefs are fighting back. Let’s be honest, there’s little enough love lost between chefs and professional critics, but at least figures such as Ronay, who had himself been a restaurant manager, gave a chef the right of reply before going to print.

I have seen waiters do many, many things, including burst into tears and juggle knives, and I once glimpsed one having sex. But never, ever has a waiter commiserated with me about the lack of service.” (One of the kinder parts of AA Gill’s review of L’Ami Louis ‘The Worst Restaurant in the World.’)

Who reviews the reviewers?
But today’s assassin bloggers have rewritten the rules. Whatever their temperament and resting heart rate, most chefs can take negative feedback that corrects a genuine mistake. But not the guy who ordered his steak well done then complained it was tough, or the table of six that sent back clean plates without a word then posted a lengthy diatribe online. In these cases, you can read some fantastic management comebacks online which call into question the expertise, motivation or sanity of the reviewer. Then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room. As one chef I spoke to admitted, “I know that most of these one-star reviews come from my competitors.”

Ali Smith
Dorset foodie Ali Smith

Ali Smith, Dorset chef and foodie
To get some inside perspective from both sides of the swinging kitchen door, I asked blogger and chef Ali Smith, who writes for West Dorset Foodie and Menu Dorset, for her thoughts on the rules of reviewing.

The importance of blogs…
From an industry perspective, blogs and reviews have become an integral part of the public’s decision process. It’s not just the traditional guides and broadsheet reviews any more. Reviews can and do bring diners to our restaurants and as such must be viewed as a relevant tool. Bloggers need to consider the position of power they are in; potential punters Googling a venue might find three web pages; the restaurant’s own website, TripAdvisor and their blog- one individual really can have a disproportionate amount of influence.” 

…as long as they’re fair
“Of course we can’t expect all reviews to be glowing. As a chef – some constructive feedback is often valuable; if diners and online reviewers are repeatedly raising the same issues then maybe they have a point. It’s rarely useful, however, to write a scathing review and often deeply unfair on the business and individuals at the receiving end. In a personal blog situation, if you don’t like somewhere, don’t write at all. The only possible purpose it can serve is to alleviate your own need for vengeance. The restaurant might have been short staffed, had a late produce delivery, or had an equipment failure in the kitchen. We all have off days. It’s not good for the paying customer but it’s how the restaurant deal with it that’s key. Be more understanding; point out issues at the time, not after the event when the management have no power to change the outcome.”

It’s not just personal
“I’m a fine dining girl at heart; I love to be spoilt with the highest level of service, the most exquisite food and in all likelihood a hefty bill come the end of the evening. I can be very exacting. When reviewing, it’s important to take a step back and try to be a little more objective. I ask myself- am I the target market? I consider price – is this an everyday dining venue or an expensive treat where there should be a higher expectation of quality and consistency? Look around – if the place is busy and popular, what is it that other diners are finding to their liking – perhaps it’s the generosity of portions, the homely feel? Tastes differ and if you’re going to publish your opinion in the public’s eye, it’s important, whilst being honest, to be fair.”

And it’s not just about the food
“From a personal perspective, writing about restaurants is a great way of getting out and about and discovering different places I might otherwise have not considered. I enjoy meeting new people, discovering new ingredients and (hopefully) being surprised and delighted by flavours, ideas or techniques I might not have come across or which might be being utilised in an unusual way.

Reviews can be helpful
“From a chef’s perspective, it forces me to sharpen my senses, to analyse dishes and flavours in more depth and hence to bring me to an ever-greater understanding of the magical sensory experience that is food and dining. It’s also very grounding; all too often, as chefs, we can become consumed with the act of constructing dishes from within the confines of the kitchen, forgetting that there is so much more to the diner’s experience than the food. Service, atmosphere, the music, even the lighting, all play a part. It puts things into perspective.”

Reviewing ain’t easy
“Of course it’s not all positive, there have, of course, been times when, confronted with yet another mediocre dish, another overcooked scallop, an artificial tasting sauce which has seen neither love, nor vegetable nor bone in its short journey from tub to plate, I wish I’d stayed at home and cooked myself! On these occasions I console myself with a second glass of wine, a glance at the beautiful view or the thought of another, better dining experience that is sure to come!”

One of the major safeguards these days is that bloggers and journalists have to disclose if a review was paid for, by invitation, or incognito. Nearly all of the reviews I have written have been arranged with the restaurant in question.

La Plantation in Bournemouth
The Edge in Bournemouth
Riverside in West Bay
Neo in Bournemouth

Obviously, biting the hand that literally just fed you is not an option, not that it’s ever been tempting. For my part, it’s clearly a perk to dine out in some great venues and talk with the chef and dining room staff. Even when they’re busy, they tend to make themselves available and are usually eager to communicate why they’ve chosen the menu and what they’re trying to achieve.

Even though I love writing about food and restaurants, I can barely cook, and have the palate of a bluebottle. Blindfolded, I would struggle to tell the difference between beef and ice cream, let alone Burgundy and Bordeaux. So instead of searching for flavours that 20 years of smoking pretty much put out of reach, I try instead to communicate the overall experience, look for the details that make the venue different, find the reasons why I’d want to go there again.

To finish off, as a little digestif, I’ve picked my own restaurant Top 5…

Best critic:
AA Gill. Not just my favourite critic, but one of my favourite writers altogether. Brutally honest, not least about his own life, and so gifted at finding exactly the right word or phrase to nail an idea. I believe he speaks very highly of me also.

The Edge Restaurant
The Edge

Best Dorset restaurant reviewed:
The Edge. Chef Nick Hewitt’s food was magnificent, the view at sunset was perfect, and the restaurant is now closed. Just goes to show…

Best dining experience:
A bowl of giant land snail in a spicy palm nut sauce from an open-air cafe in West Africa. To be honest, the snail was pretty hard work, but I wrote about it as my entry for the Daily Telegraph Young Food and Drink Writer of the Year competition in 1998, and won. So it has a special place in my heart (and it only cost about $2).   

Best restaurant visited:
La Coupole in Paris. In 2001, the magazine I was working for in London took the entire staff to Paris at Christmas. It was a lost weekend, followed within the year by a lost job. This particular dinner was a bit of a blur. At one point I remember being eyeball to antenna with a huge tower of langoustines on ice, then a line of superbly professional waiters filing past with a birthday cake festooned with sparklers. Pure theatre, and probably horrifically expensive for whoever picked up the tab.

Virgin Atlantic
Courtesy of airlinemeals.net

My Death Row dinner choice:

Forget fried chicken or a hamburger. My last meal on earth would be airline food, either Virgin Atlantic or Delta to be precise. Whichever took longer. There’s something about whipping away the tin foil, unwrapping each course one by one, and having nothing else to focus on that can’t be beaten. Top tip: Always ask the crew nicely for a second tray for a mid-Atlantic midnight snack (or to barter for cigarettes with other inmates if really on Death Row). 

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