Do you remember the days when the vast majority of The Wood suburb close to the city was dominated by glasshouses and market gardens? If you do then you will be very familiar with the Romano name, and the descendants of the original Romano immigrants who continue to grow tomatoes and other produce today, just not in The Wood.
Bettina Romano and her children Clarissa and Anthony are carrying on the family tradition from their property on Cable Bay Road and sell the beautiful produce they grow at the Nelson Farmers Market as well as to a few select restaurants, Prego in Collingwood St and from the stall at their gate.
Last week I spent some time with Bettina, Clarissa and Anthony to find out a little more about them, their business and the challenges they have faced over the years; the sudden death of Nick, Bettina’s husband and her children’s father, in 2013 is obviously at the top of the list of challenges but six years later this tight-knit family have created a wonderful life for themselves.
Their story starts long before that, Nick’s grandfather, Cataldo, arrived in Nelson in 1925 as a 16-year-old, and with a number of his compatriots helped establish the market gardens and build the tomato glasshouses that dominated the landscape in The Wood.
Fifty years ago these gardens were literally on the doorstep of the inner-city, the land beside Trafalgar Park that has been developed as Hathaway Court was a market garden where you could rock up and select your own fresh lettuce from the garden.
Cross Trafalgar Street and you would head up Grove St, a street dominated by glasshouses and fresh vegetable stalls, and you would find Romano’s almost at the end of Grove St opposite the Bush Inn where their fruit and vegetable shop was the last one standing in the 1990’s after all of the other glasshouses in the area were removed and replaced with houses.
The Italian heritage in the area lives on with most of the small private-lane developments carrying names like Romano Way, DiLeva Way, Monopoli Way and Albano Way, these are the names that were synonymous with Little Italy as The Wood was often referred to back in the day.
Nick’s father, Tony Romano, was one of the first Nelson tomato growers to grow the Isle of Capri tomato variety commercially and it is this variety that has drawn me to their produce over the years, they are a tomato I love for their low acidity and versatility, and it is the variety that the current Romano generation nurture and share with us.
Nick’s father, Tony Romano, had taken over the business from Cataldo and his hard work showed in the success of the Romano market garden business so when he retired in 2003 Bettina and Nick decided to keep the family business going.
After Tony sold the land on Grove St some of the glasshouses remained for the taking so he guided Nick and Bettina through the process of relocating the glasshouses and establishing the current gardens on a piece of land they had purchased on Cable Bay Road.
When I met with Bettina it was in a packing shed at the end of one of the glasshouses, “they all had a packing shed at the end so workers didn’t need to transport the fresh tomatoes very far to pack them into wooden boxes ready for sale around New Zealand” she says.
“Rebuilding the glasshouses was a huge mission for us, it took a year of hard work while Nick was working full-time at Sealord, but it was cheaper than building new glasshouses.”
This work ethic has obviously passed down through generations; when I met with Bettina the kids were home from University for the summer. Clarissa has completed her degrees in Marketing & Public Policy at Victoria University and is currently working at MG Marketing, “I’m completing a graduate programme at MG Marketing, I get to look at all aspects of the business, so having grown up with producing market garden produce it’s an industry that I’m familiar with.”
Anthony has just finished his first year at Vic studying towards a Bachelor in Tourism Management degree while minoring in Marketing and International Business.
When it comes to the business Nick and Bettina opened a store in Trafalgar St, opposite Trafalgar Park and launched their own brand of tomato sauce, but when Nick died suddenly Bettina was thrown in the deep end, she had to run the business while looking after her teenage children.
“The only way I could manage was to close the store so as a family we could focus on the future and that meant turning back to what we know best, growing things.
Setting up the tomato business was the filfulment of a long-held dream to live the good life in the country. They planned to grow fruit and vegetables and provide a healthy rural lifestyle for their family.
“You need to enjoy what you do, and while it is hard work it is rewarding to see the end product which Nelsonians love.
Her father-in-law Tony stepped in and taught her everything she knows about growing tomatoes and helped her grow the business too, “we like to grow vegetables as naturally as possible, Tony shared his secret fertilizer recipe with me and that is one of the key reasons we can grow the Isle of Capri’s so well.” That and a lot of hard work I say!
Growing tomatoes and other produce in glasshouses at this time of the year is hot, hard work, “we generally work from about 6 am ‘til 11 am and then again in the evening from about 5 ‘til 9, it’s just too hot during the day.”
I started this column intending to write about the delicious Isle of Capri tomatoes and other vegetables the Romano family grow but for me the real story is about a tight-knit family who have worked hard to create a future for themselves in their little slice of paradise on the way to Cable Bay, oh, and don’t forget to check out their fantastic Isle of Capri tomatoes, sweet peppers, eggplants and other beautiful produce.
Published in the Nelson Mail 20.02.19