“Everything dies, baby that’s a fact, But maybe everything that dies
Someday comes back”
– Bruce Springsteen, “Atlantic City”
I love our garlic. We tried the cultivar “Thermidrome”, from the Rhone-Alpes region, here three years ago, and from the unlikely origins of our thick London clay came forth full-flavoured cloves as fat as any I’ve seen grown organically in the UK. When it comes to vegetables, bigger is by no means better, but tiddly can certainly be fiddly.
Thermidrome has continued to yield well here, and when today our main seed merchant told me it was being discontinued, I sighed heavily, with what I hope they realised was a mixture of sadness and relief. The latter, because we have been keeping back a portion of the bulbs every year as insurance against discontinuations, and other acts of God.
The garlic, once dried and cured in the glasshouse, wants storing in a cool, dry environment for the rest of its rest, from where, on rainy days and dark nights over the coming months, it will be cleaned, trimmed, hung, and steadily dropped into the Hawkwood farm stall and vegeboxes.
Last Wednesday seemed to be the ideal time to begin doing this: in the glasshouse they had stayed four weeks – a moon’s circuit – a good period for the ripening of these clusters of pale crescents; and fiddling with unfiddly garlic was the best warm-up I could think of before a long weekend of traditional cidre and sun appreciation in Northern France.
Cleaning up the fairest of our “seeds”, my mind turned to the Onion Johnies. Since the 1820s, these Breton farmers have crossed the windy channel with their cured onions, cousins of our French garlic. From there, they have ridden round the south of England – even as far as Wales if Dylan Thomas is to be trusted – pedalling their trade door-to-door, market place to market place. In doing so they sometimes died at sea; they gave us Brits the enduring stereotypical image of the Frenchman (hooped jersey, beret, moustache, garlands of plaited onions, roadster bicycles); and provide people like us with a colourful precedent for direct, human-powered produce.
In 1929 some 1,400 Johnies imported over 9,000 tonnes of onions to Blighty, but by the end of the last century they had become a rare breed indeed. Yet, their example inspired the founding of Brittany Ferries in the 1970s, primarily as a means of serving vegetables to the rosbif. The revived interest in real food has apparently led to a small revival in Johny numbers trading their distinctive, protected varieties of pink Breton onions.
There is no “going back”, and even if there was, there’s quite probably no golden age to go back to. Yet if you see, as I do, our daily encounters with food and drink as one utterly fundamental encounter, or relationship if you will, with our world, then aftertastes of the past can bring meaning to that relationship, make it more meaningful. Then the feats of the Onion Johnies have a resonance when sorting Thermidrome garlic, some of which will be delivered by bicycle. Though not, I slightly regret, by men wearing waxed facial hair and berets.
I imagine the Breton farmer, their onions crispening in the summer heat, leaning on their sturdy three-speed, squinting over the blue body of water to locate the misty promise of the Hampshire coast.
From our Old Kitchen Garden you look out over the Lea valley reservoirs, across the sea of houses to the fool’s golden pavements of central London. In the days when Onion Johny was in his pomp, fruit and veg markets were in the heart of the city, at Spitalfields and Covent Garden. No longer, but these sites continue to pulsate, with different trades layered over the still-visible seams of the produce exchange.
Then, market gardeners like us, on the skirts of London, ferried their harvests into these markets. It tickles me that, as of last week, we are in on the un-discontinuation of this tradition. The Opera Tavern, a tapas bar serving show- goers in Covent Garden (itself named after the nun’s old kitchen garden that grew there before the veg market) are the most recent London eatery to stock our heritage tomatoes this summer. Welcome to the restoration.