The fruits of their labour

It's the season for cucumber sandwiches, and one family in deepest England couldn't be happier. Giuseppe Baio tells Clare Longrigg how the tasty treat got them out of a Sicilian pickle and into a stately pile
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At the end of a long country lane in Hertfordshire, the road sweeps to a stop before a Mediterranean-style villa complete with columns, marble steps, a swimming pool and huge stone fountain exactly as you might find in the piazza of a small Italian town. "I built it all myself," says 63-year-old Sicilian Giuseppe Baio proudly. Below the mansion stands Baio's other great construction: a vast glass city - around 10,000sq m of industrial greenhouses humming with pumps and atmospheric extractors. Inside are rows and rows of leafy plants, each climbing its own piece of twine, the dense growth at the base of each bristling with thick green cucumbers.

At the end of a long country lane in Hertfordshire, the road sweeps to a stop before a Mediterranean-style villa complete with columns, marble steps, a swimming pool and huge stone fountain exactly as you might find in the piazza of a small Italian town. "I built it all myself," says 63-year-old Sicilian Giuseppe Baio proudly. Below the mansion stands Baio's other great construction: a vast glass city - around 10,000sq m of industrial greenhouses humming with pumps and atmospheric extractors. Inside are rows and rows of leafy plants, each climbing its own piece of twine, the dense growth at the base of each bristling with thick green cucumbers.

Baio has been growing cucumbers in this part of Hertfordshire since the 1960s. It all started when he joined a co-operative with a handful of close friends who had also moved from rural Sicily. They helped each other out with loans and labour and, over the years, have become the biggest cucumber suppliers in this part of England.

Baio and his wife, Neva Capelli, grew up together in a small town near Agrigento in southern Sicily. His father had been left a small piece of land which he passed down to them: "Thanks to that piece of land," says Baio, "we raised ourselves above having to work for somebody else." Baio and his brothers grazed a few cows and grew wheat and a few vegetables on their plot. It was not an ideal life, he says, "what with the wind, hail, and general discontentment..." But the idea remained that, to have a minimum of self-respect in this world, you need land. "We worked night and day," recalls Capelli. "We just wanted our own land."

Baio was 24 when he managed, through Sicilian family friends, to get a four-year work contract in a factory in the town of Hitchin. Before he left Sicily, he and Capelli got engaged, although not formally. "It was just between ourselves, although everybody knew," Baio says with a grin. After about a year, he returned to Italy to marry her. So it was in January 1967 that Capelli found herself in Hertfordshire - a 19-year-old bride who was unable to speak a word of English. Her first job was in the local hospital where she cooked delicious pasta dishes for the doctors and nurses. Baio worked a double shift at the factory, before digging potatoes and carrots on a local farm in the afternoons.

After a year, the couple had saved enough for a deposit on a small house. Meanwhile, their Sicilian friends were talking about leasing a greenhouse together to grow some plants and flowers - and they persuaded Baio to join them in the venture. Baio had to sell the new house to raise the money but, shortly after, he decided that co-operative business was not for him. He struck out on his own, got a loan, leased a greenhouse and planted his first cucumbers.

"It was 20 years before we could afford a family holiday," recalls Capelli. "The interest on the loan was 24 per cent; we had no Saturday and no Sunday." The signora has a head for figures: she remembers every interest payment ever paid on the loan since the 1960s. It was a team effort. On Valentine's Day, three years after their wedding, Capelli gave birth to the first of their three sons.

"I'd be up at dawn working in the greenhouses, then I'd come back to the house and get the boys up and ready for school," she remembers. "Then I'd do the cooking, and by afternoon I'd be back in the nursery, packing cucumbers. The boys helped out a bit when they were little." Backbreaking work but, finally, Capelli's dream - to have a home next to the nursery - came true, and the family bought a house, with its very own plot of land, on the outskirts of the picturesque market town of Ware.

Today, inside the stifling greenhouses, a younger Giuseppe, also Sicilian, adjusts the temperature and checks the moisture levels. Rows and rows of cucumber vines climb 6ft high, each one adorned with bright-yellow flowers. Pesticide is pumped out into the air and plant food piped into the root system. The young, wiry Giuseppe, cigarette dangling from his lower lip, controls it all by computer, observing that 10 years ago, it was all done by hand, including opening vents to control the temperature. In summer, the heat inside the glass houses becomes ferocious. The plants are replaced three times a year, since the fruit begins to lose its crispness if it is matured on a plant much older than three months. Giuseppe waves an arm at the forest of broad-leafed cucumber plants: "In a couple of months we'll be clearing out the whole lot and starting again."

The plants then take three weeks to reach maturity but they start producing cucumbers as fast as the female team can pick them."If they were men, we'd get it done a lot faster," Giuseppe growls. He has been in Hertfordshire for 10 years, yet looks, and talks, as though he had never left his Sicilian village.

Over three decades the family has gradually extended the nursery to its present acreage, but these days Baio no longer sets foot inside the greenhouses. He suffers from bronchial asthma, and has sub-let the nursery. His old friend from Sicily, Salvatore, tends the vegetable garden, planted with artichokes, courgettes and tomatoes, and fruit trees.

"Giuseppe's 63," says Capelli. "Now he's going to spend his days growing flowers and playing his pianola." After 30 years' hard labour, Baio has finally got a return from his land.

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