Steve Askham in front of a map of the world, which he knows well. / SUR

How the real 'man from Del Monte' ended up in Nerja

Steve Askham has spent four decades travelling the world in search of the perfect fruit for international companies

JENNIE RHODES

Steve Askham has been described as the "real man from Del Monte"; his career spans four decades and has taken him all over the planet in search of the best fruit for international markets - just like the character from the famous eighties TV commercials.

What Steve doesn't know about fruit probably isn't worth knowing. His trips to South America, Africa, across Europe and to Asia have involved close encounters with crocodiles, black mamba snakes and gunfire... among other incidents.

He has recently put pen to paper and written his first book, Life's a Peach - a combination of his memoirs and some facts about the international fruit industry, through his eyes.

I met Steve in his adopted town of Nerja, over lunch in one of his favourite chiringuitos. Fish was the order of the day, naturally, but tellingly Steve commented on the likely origin of the avocado (too early to be from the Axarquía - probably Mexico or Peru) and grimaced when I suggested ordering a salad.

"You clearly know too much. Will this be the last time I ever eat fresh fruit and vegetables?" I asked, only half-joking.

Like so many of us, Steve, 58, found his career path quite by accident. At the age of 18, already with a mortgage to pay (unheard of nowadays; this was the early 1980s), Steve was working four jobs in Kent, where he grew up. His family had moved there when he was just a year old as his father was offered a job teaching mining engineering in Canterbury.

"I was born in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, and I'm very proud of my roots," Steve adds, with an unmistakably thick southeast England accent.

One of the jobs was in a local pub, where a regular, a "distinguished gentleman" called Henry Bond, the managing director of a fruit importing company, spotted Steve's natural ease with people and the way he worked in the pub.

Bond offered him a position with his company and Steve accepted. He soon found that he had a flair for the fruit importing and exporting trade and worked his way up through to auditor for Marks and Spencer. He proudly says that he was "a world authority on apricots" by the time he was 25.

In 2003, Steve and his young family moved to Ireland where he had been offered a job. The family stayed there for four years, until one day he had a call from a friend in Italy who had been offered a job in Malaga, but was unable to accept it.

His friend had been asked to recommend someone and he thought of Steve. "You build up a lot of contacts and indeed friends all over the world in this business," he explains.

The job, unsurprisingly, was working in the avocado industry and the family decided to go for it. "We wanted our daughters to have the opportunity to be European," Steve points out.

They have been in Malaga ever since and Steve, now divorced and semi-retired, admits that job offers still come up and admits he would "still accept the right ones".

He says that when you become involved in the international fruit industry, "it becomes you and you become it". He has travelled to South America alone over 500 times, he says, and has lost count of the number of other trips he has made across the planet.

His experience means that he has built up a vast knowledge of not just the industry but the biodiversity and importance of sustainable farming and of insects.

"It's not just the bees, he explains. We need the wasps too. It's the wasps that pollinate figs, for example, and for every type of fig, there's a species of wasp that has a unique way of pollinating its fig."

One of his greatest inspirations is David Attenborough and he admits that he has seen the impact of climate change over his career. "It's noticeable. Summer starts later and here we are at the end of October and it's still summer."

As well as finding the book-writing process "cathartic" Steve says that he hopes to "make people see the importance of food production".

Steve loves living in Nerja and is very involved in the town, playing padel, golf and as captain of a local pool/billiards club. His next steps may include avocado farming and there are definite plans to start writing a second book, he adds.