Star role for Norfolk plum tomatoes at national gala dinner

Cornerways Nursery in Wissington, stepped in at the last minute to help the NFU's big dinner in Birm

Cornerways Nursery in Wissington, stepped in at the last minute to help the NFU's big dinner in Birmingham, supplying them with 8kg of baby plum tomatoes at the last minute - Henry Roberston with the box of tomatoes. Picture: Matthew Usher. - Credit: Matthew Usher

Award-winning grower Paul Simmonds arranged for an emergency delivery of prime Norfolk plum tomatoes to a national dinner in Birmingham – saving the organisers' blushes.

Cornerways Nursery in Wissington, stepped in at the last minute to help the NFU's big dinner in Birm

Cornerways Nursery in Wissington, stepped in at the last minute to help the NFU's big dinner in Birmingham, supplying them with 8kg of baby plum tomatoes at the last minute - Henry Roberston picking the tomatoes. Picture: Matthew Usher. - Credit: Matthew Usher

Just hours before 1,000 members, delegates and guests were to celebrate the best British food and produce at the National Farmers' Union's gala dinner, boxes of South African cherry tomatoes arrived as a garnish for the first course.

Aghast, officials asked Newmarket-based NFU regional director Pamela Forbes if an alternative supplier could be found at short notice. Fortunately, Mr Simmonds, who has worked for eight years at the country's largest tomato growing business, Cornerways, by the world's largest beet sugar factory at Wissington, near Downham Market, was at the conference. 'At lunchtime, they asked if I could help because we started harvesting last week,' he said.

His colleague, commercial manager Henry Robertson then rushed into the 48-acre greenhouse and starting picking fruit. A box of the freshly-picked tomatoes was driven to the heart of Birmingham and the International Conference Centre by 6pm for the dinner. 'They needed at least 1,000 tomatoes for the dinner. We sent one box of about 8kg,' said Mr Simmonds.

'We were delighted to help. We are the only grower of this variety in the UK,' said Mr Simmonds, who is a member of the NFU's horticulture board and was a delegate at the the NFU conference.


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'As the crop has grown a bit quicker than we expected, we've been sending the first few to the Hare Arms at Stow Bardolph,' he said.

The variety, Sweet Ruby, is a baby plum tomato, which has been specially selected for premium flavour.

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'Two years ago I visited Holland to look for potential varieties and we had a trial with it last year. It beat all the opposition at taste tests and panels,' said Mr Simmonds. 'We're growing it purely for Sainsbury's and a few select local customers.

'We started picking last week and will continue harvesting five days a week until mid to late November and even into December.'

Cornerways, which takes 100pc of its energy from low-grade heat from British Sugar's refinery and recycles carbon dioxide from the combined heat and power complex to boost growth of the tomatoes. The greenhouse relies purely on natural light, which minimises the carbon footprint of the tomato growing operation, he added.

Colm Mackay, director of agriculture for British Sugar, said: 'The retiring president Peter Kendall thanked Cornerways for going out of their way and stepping in at the last minute to deliver tomatoes for the NFU dinner.'

The growing complex, which was almost doubled in size from 11 ha (27 acres) in 2010, is estimated to supply a total of around 140 million tomatoes to retailers between February and late November.

Cornerways is a subsidiary of ABF (Associated British Foods).

n The NFU's first course of East Anglian produce featured Gressingham Duck, and leeks supplied by G's Growers from the fens.

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