Laureano Alonso, who has been in charge of Compagnie Fruitière Spain’s 4 ripening facilities for more than 15 years, enthusiastically describes what goes on behind the scenes in his job.
“The biggest concern in ripening facilities is the temperature. We monitor it constantly, because the slightest deviation can have serious consequences on an entire shipment”, says the Madrid native who grew up surrounded by fruits and vegetables. Currently quality manager for the ripening facilities in Spain and Portugal, he supervises the unloading, ripening and distribution of the 115 tonnes of bananas destined for the Iberian peninsula annually. These steps require a rigorous and intuitive management capacity and a unique know-how, acquired from producers.
Carried out in a controlled atmosphere, the ripening phase is as crucial as cultivation or transport because, explains Laureano, “it is at this time that the fruit acquires its sweet taste and its golden appearance, two of its main qualities”. The fact is that the bananas arriving in Europe are still green and asleep. Like most starchy fruits, bananas naturally interrupt their ripening process by reducing their respiration. This sleep is prolonged by a temperature of 13° during the journey in refrigerated holds. However, the fruits still have to undergo various quality controls before being awakened.
At the port, one team first verifies the packages’ traceability and checks the bananas’ internal temperature. A second team unloads the bunches and stores them on other pallets. Another team inspects the appearance of the fruits, their colour, size, weight, pesticide content and checks for the presence of visible defects. This thorough inspection enables the determination of whether the bananas comply with the various standards imposed by the European Union and the requirements of customers. According to Laureano: “on average, less than 1% of the cargo remains in port, as the bananas have already been inspected before shipping.”
The fruits then go to the ripening room, where a temperature of 17° to 18° will take them out of their torpor, triggering their transformation. “In a few days, thanks to the heat and ethylene gas they produce naturally and which we ventilate, the starch is converted into sugar, the skin turns light yellow and the flesh softens. Watching this process is still thrilling even after all these years” says Laureano. Finally ready and tasty, the bananas are re-packaged and labelled for delivery to customers in the order of their arrival.
In 30 years of experience, Laureano has witnessed many developments in the sector, including one in particular: “A very scientific approach used to be applied to banana production in the past. Today, far fewer pesticides are used and the human factor is even more central to production. The fact is that we work with a natural, living, changing product. And we know that an engaged, responsible workforce is as important as a workforce with technical knowledge.”
The best part of his job? Without hesitation, his years as a dock worker: “I loved working in the ports. These are extraordinary places, where you can mix with people from all over the world every day. It’s rare and I was very lucky”. When he trains new recruits, Laureano is enthusiastic about the means of communication now available, while remaining convinced that the qualities required for his job combine rigour, a sense of responsibility and a deep longing for nature and people.