The M&S man really knows his onions. And sprouts...
A food wizard from Marks & Spencer is trying to rehabilitate the most unpopular Christmas vegetable of them all.
Dr Simon Coupe is between fields when I catch up with him. Fresh from tramping up and down rows of cauliflowers, broccoli and iceberg lettuces in Spain, Marks & Spencer’s “vegetable wizard” has stopped off in London to show off the supermarket’s newest horticultural and very festive curiosity: the red sprout.
“It’s taken years to develop,” he says, as we sit in the department store’s head office staring at a small packet. The sprouts are certainly pretty but they aren’t exactly cranberry red; more a green-tinged lilac, like an ornamental cabbage.
“The next generation will be very bright,” says Coupe. “To produce these you take a red genetic mutant and cross it with a green sprout that has desirable genes – for taste, resistance to disease and so on – until you manage to grow a plant that has the qualities the farmer and the cook both want. Now we can cross it with itself to get a double red – deeper, redder, brighter. I’m pushing to have it ready for next season.”
As one of five fresh-produce technologists at M&S, Coupe is responsible for working with seed-houses and farmers, constantly stretching botanical boundaries to make tomatoes that are sweeter, broccoli that is even better for you, asparagus that arrives in autumn (a second British season), lettuces that last longer, and carrots that have extra vitamin A.
We look at the carrots. I am sure they taste delicious but they are also – how can I put this delicately? – exceptionally long.
“Ah, yes,” says Dr Coupe. “That’s because by crossing in the plants that were high in vitamin A we accidentally ended up with carrots that are very long and spindly. One of the breeding aims is to get them shorter. They don’t pack well.”
In the world of vegetables, unusually big (or small) can be a desirable quirk. M&S has had great success with miniature pears, small cabbages, baby lemons, tiny tangerines…
“And we have huge avocados,” says Coupe, lifting his hand about eight inches off the table to demonstrate.
Unexpected colours – such as the red sprouts – can also catch the eye of shoppers. “Though sometimes they scare people,” admits Coupe.
Purple carrots certainly look exotic to the modern eye, even though magenta was the original colour – the orange version was developed by the Dutch in the 16th century in a tribute to William of Orange.
“I did a white carrot a couple of years ago, which I thought was super,” says Coupe, glumly. “But when I handed it round the department they said, 'It looks like a parsnip.’”
I don’t think I’d want to run up against Dr Coupe if I’d entered the carrot class of a village show. This is a man who knows more about vegetables than the keenest of gardeners – he has a degree in agronomy and a PhD in plant molecular biology.
After graduating, he worked on a project with yellow-flowering seed rape. “It grows its seeds in a long pod that dries out and can shatter as it’s harvested. I managed to isolate the genes for it and stop that process. We put in a patent thinking we were the bees’ knees. Heroes!”
Then there was an anti-genetically modified (GM) backlash so Coupe went to the States, and got very highbrow about the DNA-binding proteins in the cell nuclei of tomatoes, before moving to New Zealand, where he spent five years doing crop-and-food research for the government. There he discovered that dipping plants in hot water can deactivate the enzyme that controls degradation.
“We were dipping a ton of asparagus at a time in a swimming pool full of heated water. You could double its shelf life, which meant we could ship it to Japan by sea rather than air freight.”
I think he’d probably like me to point out here that M&S does not sell any GM produce. Also, thankfully, he doesn’t enter his local village show. “There is a chap who grows micro-shoots in a professional greenhouse in Kent. His pumpkins are huge! He has a dedicated greenhouse for them: three feeding systems, special feeding tanks, lights. He gets one to over 100kg [220lbs] every year. The locals have given up entering, he wins every single time.”
So there are no strange growing experiments in the Coupe household? “I do sometimes do purple tomatoes or miniature cucumbers in my greenhouse. And I’m getting into containers.” He pauses. “But you need to do things properly. You need a micro-drip irrigation system.”
What, even at home? “I’m away a lot and I can’t expect other people to water the crops…” (I sense he may have been told this, possibly by Mrs Coupe.)
Vegetables are a highly competitive business, with each supermarket chain trying to get the edge on new and unusual products, as well as fruit and veg that will stay crispy and bright for longer – good for piquing customers’ interest as well as for turnover. M&S is set to introduce little seedless red peppers. “Good for children’s lunch boxes,” says Coupe. “I saw these in Israel when I was doing peppers five years ago. A small company had developed them and wanted to know if we were interested. We’ve got the worldwide exclusive launch next week.”
A project to sell mushrooms with extra vitamin D is currently tied up in European red tape. “It’s a bureaucratic nightmare,” he sighs. “Foraged mushrooms are naturally vitamin D enriched because of the sun. But we farm mushrooms in a tunnel in the dark, so the EU has a ruling that if you expose them to UV light to enrich them with vitamin D you’re changing the raw material, and it needs a special validation.”
Any chance of onions that don’t make you stream with tears? “There are sweeter onions that have fewer of the volatile compounds that make you cry. The growth of these is dictated by day length, so you have to bring those onions in from Spain.”
And what about avocados that don’t immediately oxidise to a grubby-looking brown?
“Well, we are working on what we call anti-pinking lettuce, so it stays looking fresh for longer once it’s cut.”
“We did have,” chips in M&S’s PR person, “a request from a customer for sprouts that don’t make you fart.”
Dr Coupe struggles for a moment with his composure. “That’s a challenge with brassicas in general,” he says gravely. “And it really winds up the growers when people mention it.” And with that, he’s off. Next stop, a sprout field in Ireland where, it’s to be hoped, no one will mention the F word.