Can aubergines be grown in the Fens?
Aubergines are a real taste of the Orient – and most people probably do not realise just how many varieties of these exotic vegetables there actually are.
In the hothouse atmosphere of two polytunnels on the site of a former onion factory in Norfolk, three dozen varieties are ready to be harvested.
Innovation manager Jonathan Pearson, of farming company Agrimarc, has been growing about 600 aubergine plants at Hope Farm, Southery, near Downham Market, as part of a trial to see if they can be grown commercially to replace imported produce.
He got seed from almost every continent to grow varieties including the Turkish Orange, Brazilian Oval Orange, Thai Light Green and Ukraine Diamond.
But his favourite aubergines – with the most appeal to the food industry – could be the green-fruited Hansel and the white Gretel.
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'We trawled the world to get the seed. Some are Asian, some are African, some are eastern European. It is a quite extraordinary variety all to be growing under one roof,' said Mr Pearson.
'We wanted to push the boundaries and see if aubergines could be successfully grown in this country. We're doing this trial to evaluate the potential of aubergines and whether it is possible to grow a commercial aubergine crop.
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'I think we really could. We need to hone our practices and do it a lot better but it is about how much of an imported product could be grown in the UK. Maybe it is only two months of the year but if that could be in the UK, it would be fantastic.
'We have shown that it is possible to replace imported aubergines, possibly for a two-month season in August and September,' said Mr Pearson, who has worked for Agrimarc, of March, for the past six years.
The seeds were planted in February and then about 600 plants were planted in the unheated single span polytunnels in late May or the beginning of June. 'They do like it really hot – 30C – and really the hotter the better,' he added.
'When we look for a different idea it is sometimes easier to take the conventional step first, but we wanted to look at the extreme opportunities and understand the potential.'
A colleague, Dawn Terry, of green electricity concern Local Generation, also managed the crop over the summer.
With colleagues at sister company Fenmarc, the potential of the aubergine varieties will be evaluated for taste, visual appeal and scope to be included in prepared vegetables and meals.
Fenmarc, which was established about 40 years ago and is one of the country's top three vegetable packers, also prepares seasonal vegetables including trimmed Brussels sprouts, baton carrots, cauliflower florets and roast potatoes with autumn flavours or mixtures of peppers and flavourings.
His colleagues in new product development are relishing the opportunity to use the pick of the aubergine crop and evaluate the potential, said Mr Pearson.
'They will be using them to try to see if there are some which have different and better benefits over others,' he added.
One variety, Diamond, which was bred in Ukraine to suit the cooler growing conditions, could be grown in an unheated tunnel but others might thrive best in a heated environment.
While his favourites include Hansel and Gretel, others are Calliope, a long purple type; Shoya Long; and a round variety, called Kazakhstan, which can grow to about 10 inches in size. Another, Snowy, also looks very pretty.
The aubergine, which is also known as the eggplant in North America and Australasia, originated in India.
It is a core ingredient in the classic Mediterranean dish, moussaka.
He delayed his aubergine harvest so that 100 farmers and growers could view the plants at an open day.
'In my job as innovation manager, that's the best bit of the job – wowing people,' he added.
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