Let's talk red, sensual, sweet, sexy flesh ...

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The Independent Online
Supermarkets are on red alert in the latest fight to capture the consumer's taste-buds. The battleground is the fruit-and-veg section. The weapons - round, juicy and piquantly sweet - are being developed in the strictest secrecy in a Lancashire nursery.

Supermarket chiefs have been pouring hundreds of thousands of pounds into experiments to produce the perfect tomato. This month, as the year's first English-grown hothouse tomatoes reach the shelves, they will see whether their investments have paid off.

Today's tomato-eaters want an intense sensual experience. The fad for sun-dried tomatoes has revived a yearning for the sharp, tangy tastes of old. Tomatoes are increasingly served as smart cocktail nibbles.

"Flavour is the driving force," said Paul Willgoss, salad technologist at Marks & Spencer. "We like to think that all our varieties have that vital 'Wow!' factor."

Andy Roe, production manager at English Village Nurseries, Southport, Lancs, will be following this summer's tomato wars with proprietorial interest. As a main supplier to many of the large chains, he has been charged with developing the contenders for tomato stardom. His main concern is not to let one storeknow what another is doing. "It's a minefield out there," he said. "We have to keep everything under lock and key."

Already he has lost one customer, Tesco, because of what he calls "the politics" of trying to keep competing groups happy.

It takes up to seven years to develop a tomato that will meet the demands of the buyers. "Over the past four years, British growers have been made increasingly aware of the need for quality - ie flavour," Mr Roe said. But he must also ensure a high yield and uninterrupted supplies.

A lot is at stake. "The quality of fresh produce is one of the main factors that drives customers into our stores," confirmed Victoria Molyneux of Safeway. "People want to go back to the old days when they had a good- tasting product."

Going back to the old days means, paradoxically, using the most modern methods to produce varieties that combine good looks, robust keeping qualities and the required tangy taste. Most important, said Mr Willgoss, is to ensure that the selected varieties have a consistent flavour at all seasons, wherever grown.

"We look all over the world for the right genetic material," he said. Over the past four years, Marks & Spencer has introduced a range of speciality tomatoes, all based on flavour - notably the cherry-sized Melrow, the plum-shaped Sweetheart, and Delice.

All are grown by Andy Roe, who has hopes of even better things from his most hush-hush project: "We are working with Marks & Spencer on a breeding programme to look for the Holy Grail of all tomatoes and we believe we are not far away."

Modern tomato production is a big and highly automated business. English Village Nurseries has an annual turnover of pounds l0.5m and owns neary 80 acres of greenhouses, mainly in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Temperature, light and water supply are computer-controlled. The tomatoes are pollinated by thousands of bees imported from Belgium.

Sarah Harper, of Asda, said some complaints about tasteless tomatoes are due to the way they are handled. "They are like a fine wine. They should be stood at room temperature for several hours, not eaten from the fridge."

How long before tomatoes get their own appreciation societies - or their own TV show, with Jilly Goolden rolling her eyes in delight. Mmmm ... or even Wow!