Why Lancashire is the larder of England

Peter Ascroft shows off some of the specialty tomatoes grown at Croftpak Nurseries in Tarleton.
Peter Ascroft shows off some of the specialty tomatoes grown at Croftpak Nurseries in Tarleton.
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Lancashire is the only place in the UK where tomato farmers grow a special Mediterranean variety. It may come as a surprise to many living in the county – it’s known for being one of the rainiest places to live in the country.

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Peter's brother Michael

Peter's brother Michael

But the San Marzano-type plum tomato, Pozzano, grows very happily, tucked away safe and sound under glass at a nursery in Tarleton, near Preston.

Patriarch of Croftpak Nurseries Brian Ascroft has successfully been growing the San Marzano along with his wife Janet and their sons Peter and Michael for four years.

The tomatoes are sold by Booths, making it the first and only UK supermarket to sell a locally-grown variety of the San Marzano plum tomato.

Widely admired for its regional and British sourcing policies, Booths has been looking at ways to source English-grown plum tomatoes, which are not easily grown in northern Europe due to the cooler temperatures.

“The main thing when sourcing varieties is the flavour,” Brian says. “Everything that’s harvested here is harvested by family members – my wife and two sons work with me – and you live or die by what you produce. I’m proud to say that in the 27 years I’ve been serving Booths I have never had anything returned.”

He has also been growing a tomato Brian calls Sweet Magic, of the Campania variety, since the mid 1990s. “It’s not easy to grow,” said Brian. “I don’t think anyone else grows it in the UK.

“We grown five varieties overall, they’re all sold in Booths. I have been growing now for 16 years and we try new varieties every year and if the tomatoes don’t like the way I grow then we don’t grow them again.

“We buy the plants from Hull, I have to buy the seed then they are sown and they’re delivered in January. We then have to plant them – tie them up and then start side shooting and training them before we start picking them.

“We grow them in coconut fibre and keep them under glass. They all grow exactly the same way. We now grow for flavour instead of weight – in 1990 I grew 97 tonnes on half an acre – that was when it was about weight. Now we just try to grow as much flavour and difference into the tomatoes as possible.

“Our heating comes from a biomass boiler which runs on wood chip. We try to be as up to standard as we can.

“All the watering, ventilation and heat is controlled by the computer. It feeds the plants so on a sunny day it might water them every 15 minutes and on a cloudy day they might be watered every one and a half hours.”

Booths fresh produce buyer Tom Hargreaves said that Booths’ success is in no small part down to the great produce available on our doorstep.

He said: “Lancashire is the larder of England, so food and drink producers are vitally important to the county in terms of jobs, economics and the wider food culture.

“Booths has always been the byword for quality, combining the best of global food with the best of local. The original EH Booth committed to searching for the best goods he could find, and that sourcing ethos based on quality still rings true today.

“Booths has deep roots in Lancashire, renown for forging profitable and flourishing partnerships with local growers, bakers, cheesemakers and producers in the county.

“Dewlay cheesemakers have supplied Booths for three generations, and it’s one just one of the many family run food businesses that continue to thrive in in the county.

“Latham’s of Broughton have been supplying indulgent desserts and cakes for Booths for nearly three decades.

“Brian Ashcroft has been supplying vine ripened tomatoes for Booths for 25 years, expanding his production steadily over a quarter century.

“I’m now working with Peter, Brian’s son, another generation working with Booths.

“Longstanding relationships like the one with Ashcroft’s allows Booths to sell what our customers want—and work with a local supplier who genuinely understands the market we operate in.”

Brian started helping his father out in the farm from the tender age of five. “I left school when I was 15,” he said. “I’m 73 now and I’m still going.

“We have always been farm stock going back. We used to grow lettuce, cucumbers and kidney beans.

“Booths asked me if I would start growing tomatoes in 1992 and we found one variety, Vitador, which ripened on the vine so you could pick it ripe they didn’t go soft. It had a marvellous shelf life. It was the first tomato to be harvested on the vine in this country.

“Believe it or not for six tomatoes in 1990 they retailed for over a pound.”

The latest tomato which Croftpak Nurseries is bringing to customers is a variety called Strabena.

Brian said: “We trialled it last year and its just gone into Booths. It’s a strawberry-shaped tomato and it’s really juicy.

“It’s unbelievable, everybody who tries it wants more.”