Strawberry fields at Wimbledon

It was mid-morning and the sun was still rising across the English countryside, but Shakhbuz Yakhchiboev had been awake since the early hours. Against a first-light back, Yakhshiboev was making his way through one of the many 50-yard multiple channels that had been his mission for these two weeks.

His hands seemed confused as they ran across strawberry after strawberry, their plants all laid out at shoulder height. Yachchibov’s fingertips pressed and his eyes examined each berry. Millisecond judgments were required: Is it too big or too small? Mature or not yet mature? Is the color just right?

To choose or not to choose?

Yakhshiboev, 30, a seasonal fruit picker from Uzbekistan, is part of a 32-person team that, for the duration of Wimbledon, was the first in a chain bringing fresh British strawberries from Hugh Lowe’s farms in Mereworth, Kent, to be eaten at the Grand Slam tournament that It lasted two weeks and was held about 30 miles apart.

Eating strawberries and cream has become as synonymous with Wimbledon as the Honey Deuce cocktail at the US Open in New York or the pimento cheese sandwich at the Masters in Augusta, Ga.

Sales of strawberries at Wimbledon rose from 140,000 servings in 2016 to 249,470 servings last year, according to tournament organizers, with about 10,000 liters of cream used to cover them. During this year’s championships, more than two million strawberries are expected to be served, with many eaten within 24 hours of being picked.

This translates to about three metric tons of strawberries that need to be picked per day — or in terms of speed, one strawberry (correct) is picked every two to three seconds during a picker shift, depending on the farm.

Yakhchipov and his farm mates hail from countries including Romania, Lithuania, Portugal, Ukraine, Poland and Australia.

“I think one of the good things is that tennis is an international sport, and everyone knows about Wimbledon,” said Marion Regan, 62, managing director of Hugh Lowe Farms. “We don’t have to do a lot of explaining to our collectors and staff how important that is. They understand. They know it.”

But the fruits themselves, which tend to be borne in June, also bear a broader evocation among many Britons, who for centuries associated the smell and taste of strawberries with the onset of summer.

References to strawberries in Britain go back at least to the 16th century, according to Samantha Bilton, a food historian who Written about strawberries English Heritage, a charity that manages hundreds of historic buildings and monuments. At that time a small and wild variety of fruit was being picked fresh in the country’s forests and hedgerows, and enjoyed at banquets with sugar and spices not available to the lower classes.

Such toppings—including cream—overcame a Tudor-period view that eating wild fruit was dangerous, and as the popularity of strawberries grew, so did romanticism in literature. References to strawberries can be found in the works Sir Francis Bacon from 1625in Shakespeare’s playRichard III“and in”whatever. “

“When they’re in season, they’re the sweetest,” said Bilton, who explained that larger, modern British strawberries can trace their roots back to the 19th century, when horticulturists experimented with larger, juicier fruits that originated from imported ones. From outside.

It was this variety of strawberry that was first grown in Kent by Regan’s grandfather, Bernard Champion, in 1893. It was picked fresh in the morning and carried by horses to Covent Garden Market, in London, to be sold later that day. Across town, at the All England Club, strawberries have also been making their way as a snack at the annual Wimbledon tennis tournament.

Today, the Championship process that abounds in millions of strawberries is somewhat of a supercharged version of the Champion approach, a method that not only includes same-day transportation from farm to point of sale in D.C., but also uses barcodes, tracking, temperature control, and vibration monitoring. .

“Marion has a strawberry salad,” said Perdita Sedoff, Wimbledon’s director of food and beverage. “What you don’t know, I’m not sure anyone knows.”

Hugh Lowe Farms became the sole provider of strawberries at Wimbledon in the early 1990s, Regan said, before taking control of the 1,700-acre farm from her father, Hugh Lowe, in 1995.

Strawberries are planted across several dates between January and April – a staggered approach that keeps the farm covered whether the spring warmth comes early or late. A variety of strawberry mostly destined for Wimbledon – Mulling’s Centenary – bears in June, producing a large crop at once in a short window, rather than as a perennial, or cut back several times.

Regan and her team decide which of the farm’s 3,000 strawberries to be allocated to Wimbledon a few weeks before the Championships, and select from around 800 seasonal workers for roles in the coveted picking operation.

This year, Yakhshiboev and his fellow strawberry pickers have focused on growing strawberries on 15 to 20 acres of land—a small portion of the roughly 400 acres devoted to soft fruits—as they search for the perfect Wimbledon strawberry. According to the Regan and Wimbledon staff, these can’t be too big, so the correct number of them (10) will fit a Wimbledon game. They should have red shoulders and no white under the green leaf. Strawberries can’t be too soft and should have a good texture. (Fruits that do not meet the standards may still be used as tournament-bound jams or pickles, to save on waste.)

Then the selected strawberries make their way through the farm’s packing center, where each coded batch can be scanned to provide feedback to the pickers. Then the fruits are cooled, weighed and packaged.

Around 5 a.m., the Wimbledon order truck picks up that day, where Regan and her team managed to add temperature and vibration monitors that they could track back at the farm.

On the second Monday of the tournament, some 170,000 strawberries entered the loading bay under Court 1 just before 9 am and were then transported through a series of tunnels and across the grounds to the preparation area known as Strawberry Central, tucked below Center Court. There, while classic rock was played on the radio, the fruits of the day were peeled by members of a 30-person crew who took turns between the hours of 8am and 11pm.

By 10 a.m., the concessions had kicked off, and just after midday tennis fans lined up under a large banner that read simply, “Strawberries & Cream.”

On an adjoining rooftop, Kate Daly, 34, and Jarlat Daly, 42, from County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, sat enjoying their first visit to Wimbledon and their first taste of the snack before heading to Court No. 1. A few feet away were friends Sally Fitzpatrick. , 26, and Phoebe Hughes, 25, from London, have attended the tournament before. They knew the drill.

“There’s just this nostalgia,” Hughes said, clutching a red cardboard box of fresh strawberries, topped with cream, priced at 2.50 pounds — or just over $3 — since 2010. “Just do it when you come to Wimbledon.”

Back in Mereworth, Regan gets her tennis updates from her son Ben, running her farm and more popular clients often in the evenings. Yakhchiboev’s shift ended around lunchtime, but the next morning he would be joined by drivers, weighers, packers, washers, haulers, sellers, sellers, and buyers, ready to do their part on this strawberry trip. From seed to center court.

“It’s a long old day, and it starts early — and seven days a week,” Reagan said. “But the rewards are that you produce something that people really love. Everyone loves strawberries, so they kind of make the long days worthwhile.”