In a Fenland hothouse the hunt is on to find which variety of aubergine could be grown here

IN the hothouse atmosphere of two polytunnels on the site of a former Fenland onion factory three dozen varieties of aubergines are ready to be harvested.

Innovation manager Jonathan Pearson of March-based Agrimarc has been growing about 600 aubergine plants at Hope Farm, Southery as part of a trial to see if they can be grown commercially.

“We trawled the world to get the seed. Some are Asian, some are African, and some are eastern European. It is a quite extraordinary variety all to be growing under one roof,” said Mr Pearson.

His favourite – with the most appeal to the food industry – could be the green-fruited Hansel and the white Gretel.

He said: “We wanted to push the boundaries and see if aubergines could be successfully grown in this country.

“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 – sister company to Fenmarc- for six years.

Most Read

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.

Dawn Terry, of another sister company, green electricity concern Local Generation, managed the crop over the summer.

With Fenmarc colleagues the potential of the aubergine varieties will be evaluated for taste, visual appeal and scope to be included in prepared vegetables and meals.

“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.

Other varieties include Calliope, a long purple type; Shoya Long; and a round variety, called Kazakhstan, which can grow to about 10 inches in size.

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.

Mr Pearson 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.