Seeds, strawberries and tennis.

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Did you know that there are over 200 seeds in an average strawberry? That’s more seeds than are appearing at Wimbledon this year.  But the strawberry (Fragaria) holds more secrets inside its sweet and juicy flesh; for example, it’s not really a berry at all…

Strawberries were eaten by the Greeks and Romans. This wasn’t the cultivated ‘garden’ strawberry (Fragaria ananassa) that we know today, but a much smaller fruit, the wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca).  Although they’re both members of the rose family, the garden strawberry is a hybrid. It was first bred in Brittany, France in the 1750s, and then further developed in America; its parents are from both South America and North America. Nowadays, Kentish strawberries at Wimbledon are world famous, so it’s turned into a very cosmopolitan fruit!

Kent growers do supply virtually all the 8000 punnets that tennis watchers eat daily throughout Wimbledon fortnight. Yes, you did read that right, nearly 8000 punnets a day. On the positive side, they are local fruit, Wimbledon being in the South West of Greater London (or in Surrey, or London Borough of Merton, boundaries sometimes being in question) so it rubs geographical shoulders with The Garden of England.

Strawberries are also seasonal; ie this is the time of year for strawberries in the UK; which is why the legend of King George V introducing the eating of strawberries and cream whilst watching tennis at Wimbledon is so popular. In 1907, George V, then Prince of Wales attended Wimbledon and did eat strawberries and cream. But it is perhaps more memorable a date for being the first time the Centre Court was protected by a tarpaulin. Typical British summer weather expected, then!

As for the tradition of eating strawberries and cream, according to the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, it started with the first Wimbledon tournament in 1877. So why strawberries and cream in particular? Well, we’re back to seasonality. We may now be able to eat strawberries year round, transported from various parts of the globe; back in 1877 it was a different story. Although frozen meat was beginning to be transported by this time (mutton was first shipped from Argentina to France in 1877) it involved quantities of ice. The first refrigerator patent was licensed in Germany in 1877; but it took a while for this to become a reliable method of preserving food. Strawberries are more difficult to transport any distance, as soft fruit is easily bruised and it’s more difficult to freeze them without causing discolouration and loss of taste, for example.

So the point about eating seasonal food is that strawberries were ripe at the right time to be eaten at Wimbledon. As for the cream, likewise, seasonality was an issue.  We may have the option of soya and other milk variants easily available, but most of us tend to assume that cream comes from cows’ milk. Cream may be on the shelves 52 weeks of the year, but this wasn’t always the case.  Cows produce milk to feed their calves, who would have been born in the spring, so surplus milk was available that could turned into cream. And the ‘best’ cream to eat with your strawberries? A dollop of Devonshire or Cornish clotted cream is my favourite. And before you lift your hands in horror at the cholesterol that may be involved, remember it’s about balance – the strawberries are full of antioxidants, after all.

Final thought, all this fame about the Wimbledon strawberry being a famous fruit is false – it’s not really a fruit at all; it’s a pseudocarp…but more about fruits that aren’t what they seem another time…

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