It was midmorning and the sun was still rising in the English countryside, but Shakhboz Yakhshiboev had been awake since dawn. Against the backdrop of first light, Yakhshiboev was making his way through one of the many 50-yard-long polytunnels allotted to him over these two weeks.
Her hands seemed to blur as they ran through strawberry after strawberry, all their plants placed at shoulder height. Yakhshiboev’s fingertips clenched and his eyes scanned each berry. Split-second judgments were required: too big or too small? Ripe or not yet? Is the color correct?
To choose or not to choose?
Yakhshiboev, 30, a seasonal fruit picker from Uzbekistan, is part of a 32-person team that, during Wimbledon, has been the first link in a chain bringing in fresh British strawberries from Hugh Lowe Farms in Mereworth, Kent. to be eaten at the two-week Grand Slam tournament that takes place approximately 30 miles away.
A helping of strawberries and cream has become synonymous with Wimbledon, like a Honey Deuce cocktail at the US Open in New York or a bell pepper sandwich at the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia.
Strawberry sales at Wimbledon rose from 140,000 servings in 2016 to a record 249,470 last year, according to tournament organizers, with around 10,000 liters of cream to cover them. During this year’s tournament, more than two million strawberries are expected to be served, many of which will be consumed within 24 hours of being picked.
That translates to about three metric tons of strawberries that need to be picked every day, or, in terms of speed, one (correct) strawberry picked every two to three seconds during a picker’s shift, depending on the farm.
Yakhshiboev and his fellow foragers on the farm hail from countries such as Romania, Lithuania, Portugal, Ukraine, Poland and Australia.
“I think one of the good things is that tennis is such an international sport, and everyone knows about the Wimbledon championships,” said Marion Regan, 62, managing director of Hugh Lowe Farms. “We don’t have to do a lot of explaining to our collectors and workers about the importance of this. they get it. They know it.
But the fruits themselves, which tend to be born in June, also have a broader evocation among many Britons, who for centuries have associated the aroma and flavor of strawberries with the beginning of summer.
References to strawberries in Britain date back to at least the 16th century, according to Samantha Bilton, a food historian who has written on strawberries for English Heritage, a charity that manages hundreds of historic buildings and monuments. Back then, a small wild variety of the fruit was gathered fresh from the country’s forests and hedgerows, and enjoyed at banquets with sugar and spices unavailable to the lower classes.
Such additions, including cream, overcame the Tudor period view that eating wild fruit was dangerous, and as strawberries’ popularity grew, so did their romanticism within literature. References to strawberries can be found in the works of Sir Francis Bacon from 1625in Shakespeare”Richard III“and in Jane Austen’s”emma.”
“When they’re in season, they’re at their most glorious,” said Bilton, who explained that the roots of the larger, modern British strawberries can be traced back to the 19th century, when horticulturists experimented with larger, juicier fruits that originated from imported fruits. from abroad.
It was this type of strawberry that was first grown in Kent by Regan’s great-grandfather, Bernard Champion, in 1893. They were picked fresh in the morning and transported by horse to Covent Garden Market in London to be sold that same day. Across town, at the All England Club, strawberries were also making inroads as a snack at the annual Wimbledon tennis championships.
Today, the tournament’s multi-million dollar strawberry operation is something of an upgraded version of Champion’s approach, which not only involves same-day transportation from farm to point of sale in the capital, but also uses codes busbar and monitoring, temperature control and vibration monitoring.
“Marion is an authority on strawberries,” said Perdita Sedov, Wimbledon’s director of food and beverage. “What she doesn’t know, I’m not sure anyone knows.”
Hugh Lowe Farms became Wimbledon’s sole supplier of strawberries in the early 1990s, Regan said, before taking control of the 1,700-acre farm from her father, Hugh Lowe, in 1995.
The strawberries are planted at various dates between January and April, a staggered approach that keeps the farm covered whether the spring heat comes early or late. The strawberry variety that is predominantly destined for Wimbledon, the Malling Centenary, is the one that produces in June, producing a large crop once in a short period, rather than eternally productive or harvesting multiple times.
Regan and her team decide which of the farm’s 3,000 plastic strawberry tunnels will be dedicated to Wimbledon a few weeks before the tournament, choosing from approximately 800 temporary workers to fill roles in the coveted picking operation.
This year, Yakhshiboev and his fellow pickers have focused on strawberries planted on 15 to 20 acres of land, a small section of the roughly 400 acres dedicated to soft berries, where they have been searching for the perfect Wimbledon strawberries. According to Regan and the Wimbledon staff, these can’t be too big, so the correct number of them (10) will fit in a Wimbledon basket. They should have red shoulders and nothing white under the green leaf. The strawberries cannot be too soft and should have a good texture. (Fruits that don’t meet the standard can still be used in tournament-affiliated jams or gins, to save waste.)
The selected strawberries then pass through the farm’s packinghouse, where each batch can be barcoded and scanned to provide feedback to pickers. The fruits are then cooled, weighed and packaged.
Around 5am, a truck picks up that day’s Wimbledon order, and Regan and her team are able to add temperature and vibration monitors that they can track around the farm.
On the second Monday of the tournament, around 170,000 strawberries entered a loading dock below Court #1 before 9am. . There, while classic rock was playing on the radio, members of a 30-person team that rotates between 8 am and 11 pm shelled the fruits of the day.
At 10 a.m., the concessions began to open, and just after noon, tennis fans were lined up under a large sign that read simply, “Strawberries and Cream.”
On an adjacent terrace, Kate Daly, 34, and Jarlath Daly, 42, from County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, sat down to enjoy their first visit to Wimbledon and had their first taste of the snack before heading to the court number 1. A few yards away, friends Sally Fitzpatrick, 26, and Phoebe Hughes, 25, from London, had been to the tournament before. They knew the drill.
“There’s that nostalgia,” said Hughes, holding up a red cardboard basket of fresh cream-covered strawberries, which have been priced at £2.50, or a little over $3, since 2010. “You have to do this when you come. to Wimbledon.
Back in Mereworth, Regan received her tennis updates from her son, Ben, as the management of her farm and her best-known client often stays late into the night. Yakhshiboev’s shift ended around lunchtime, but the next morning, he would be joined again by drivers, weighers, packers and washers, haulers, shellers, vendors and buyers, ready for their part. in the journey of these strawberries. from seed to center court.
“It’s a long day and it starts early, and it’s a seven days a week thing,” Regan said. “But the payoff is that you’re producing something that people really love. Everyone loves strawberries, so it makes the long days worth it.”