The groundbreaking tomato grower developing new varieties in Banks

PUBLISHED: 17:32 04 August 2011 | UPDATED: 19:49 20 February 2013

The groundbreaking tomato grower developing new varieties in Banks

The groundbreaking tomato grower developing new varieties in Banks

We visit groundbreaking tomato growers who are developing new varieties in the Lancashire village of Banks. Emma Mayoh reports Photography by Kirsty Thompson

As Andy Roe discusses tastes, textures and the effect on the palate, it would be easy to think he was sampling a fine wine. But this is a man with one thing on his mind - tomatoes.

Just last week I tasted 250 tomato varieties but none of them were as good as these, said Andy, as he extols the virtues of the Piccolo he has just sunk his teeth into. Ive been eating these for years and
I eat them all of the time. Every time I have one I still think ooh, theyre
bloody nice.

Andy has dedicated the past 23 years to growing tomatoes at Flavourfresh in Banks, where he is production manager. During every April to November growing season just under 3,000 tonnes of the fruit are produced in the 33.5 acres of glasshouse space.

They grow 15 specialist varieties, selected for their intense flavour.
This includes the Jester that Andy said other growers avoid because of the challenges it presents. They are sold to everyone from Marks and Spencer, Booths and Asda to farmers markets across the county and several restaurants.

The 46-year-old wasnt sold on growing tomatoes as a teenager - ten days hard tomato picking at the Banks growers convinced him hed been put off for life. But now he is devoted to the ruby red fruit.

I cant get enough of tomatoes, he enthused. They have so many benefits. Theyre full of vitamins as well as potassium and calcium. All tomatoes contain lycopene which is an antioxidant.

The way we grow our tomatoes gives them the most flavour and we only grow the best ones. I would sooner eat a bowl of tomatoes than strawberries. I never get tired of the flavour. The Piccolo is the best tasting tomato in the world bar none.

What Andy doesnt know about tomatoes isnt worth knowing. His knowledge is the backbone of the business that has grown from having little over eight acres, when he first started working there, to the huge growing space there is today.

Several vast glasshouses dominate the landscape at the Banks site and hundreds of tomato plants weave their way across and up the interiors of them. The plants, which are grown in loft insulation material in suspended trays, can reach up to 30ft long and staff use hydraulic lifts to pick the most mature, ripe fruit at the top.

The conditions the tomatoes are grown in fools the plant into thinking it is going to die, kick-starting a regeneration process that forces all of the growth into the fruit. More than 40,000 bees are also used every year to pollinate the thousands of plants, before they make their escape through one of the glasshouses vents.

Flavourfresh, who have also recently started growing strawberries and blueberries, have won several prestigious awards for their tomatoes and were also praised by Michelin-starred chef Raymond Blanc. But the company doesnt just grow toms - it operates almost like a science lab.

Under Andys guidance, they are at the forefront of developing new varieties. Each year they have hundreds of new strains on trial. The Green Tiger, a more robust, dark green, striped tomato with a magenta centre, was developed by them exclusively for Marks & Spencer. The development process can take years. But it is this side of the business Andy gets particular enjoyment from.

And although his wife and crop worker, Tracey, doesnt like tomatoes,
he is hoping 15-year-old daughter Daniella, who works at Flavourfresh during the school holidays, may follow in his footsteps.

She has got a really good eye and palate. I want to find someone who has that recognition when they taste the fruit, where they can research and do new trials, he says. Walking into the glasshouses is
an absolutely magnificent thing to see. It is pleasure for me, its
not work.

The print version of this article appeared in the August 2011 issue of Lancashire Life

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