Nice work if you can get it

There can’t be too many people with ‘strawberry taster’ on their CV, but for Lucy Slatter it’s all part of what could be described as the world’s sweetest job.

Slatter is head breeder at Angus-based AVA Berries and is responsible for creating the best-looking and tastiest strawberries possible.

Berry lover Lucy says it’s a dream job: “I don’t know any other job where you get paid to eat strawberries, that’s a serious perk.”

The role also involves a fair bit of travel. Besides Tayside, the business has additional trial sites around the UK and further afield in Spain and the Netherlands.

Slatter’s perfect berry is “a good-sized one with a lovely typical conical shape with a really nice shiny, glossy bright red colour”.

Accomplishing this is a time-consuming and complex process, as Slatter explains: “The way we achieve this is we choose varieties that we would like to use as parents, and we choose these based on their characteristics.

“If we have a variety that we really like but is a bit weaker in other areas, for example a shiny strawberry that is a bit weaker on flavour, then I would consider crossing it with something with a stronger flavour.

“In the process of crossing, we combine the female part of one plant and the male part of another to mix up the two genetics, so you end up with lots of siblings to choose from.

“Then we start testing these over years to select the best ones.”

It can take at least eight years for a new berry to make it onto shelves.

“It’s a labour of love but definitely worth the wait,” says Slatter.

She doesn’t have to wait eight years before she can sample the fruits of her labour though: “As soon as there’s fruit on the plant, we have the opportunity to taste it.

“Most days there’s some sort of tasting going on. This can vary from just off the plant and getting a feel for if we like it to more official structured tastings with us and with panels of people.

“In theory we could be tasting hundreds a day, but we don’t, we have to scale that back a bit. We try and aim for no more than 20 a day.”

But not just anyone can do the role. The perfect breeder and taster needs a specific palate, that is regularly tested, and AVA regularly screens everyone in the business to discover who can really distinguish between different tastes.

Slatter says: “We need to be confident that our strawberries have the best flavour so we need to make sure those people with the full range are testing them.

“We cleanse our palates between tastings either with water or a table biscuit or cracker as they really clean your mouth out.”

Champagne can apparently also be used to this end, although Slatter hasn’t tried it yet.

“It would be a lovely decadent way to spend the day, but I’m not sure what our company policy would say about that.”

 

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