A team of workers raced to pick, pack and transport the more than two million strawberries that are expected to be served during the tournament.

It was mid-morning and the sun was still rising across the English countryside, but Shakhboz Yakhshiboev had been awake since the early hours. Against the background of first light, Yakhshiboyev made his way through one of the many 50-yard-long tunnels that had been his task for these two weeks.

His hands seemed to blur as they ran over strawberry after strawberry, their plants all placed at shoulder height. Yakhshiboev’s fingertips pressed and his eyes scanned each berry. Half-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-strong team which, for the duration of Wimbledon, was the first link in a chain that brings fresh, British strawberries from Hugh Lowe Farms in Mereworth, Kent, to be eaten at the two-week Grand Slam tournament held about 30 miles away.

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

Sales of strawberries 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 used to cover them. During this year’s tournament, more than two million strawberries are expected to be served, with many eaten within 24 hours of being picked.

That translates to about three tons of strawberries that need to be picked every day — or, depending on speed, one (correct) strawberry picked every two to three seconds during a picker’s shift, depending on the farm.

Yakhshiboev and his fellow collectors on the farm come from countries such as Romania, Lithuania, Portugal, Ukraine, Poland and Australia.

“I think one of the nice things is that tennis is such an international sport, and everyone knows the Wimbledon championships,” said Marion Regan, 62, the managing director of Hugh Lowe Farms. “We don’t have to explain much to our constituents and workers about how important this is. They get it. They know it.”

But the fruit itself, which tends to be borne in June, also has a wider evocation among many Britons, who for centuries have associated the smell and taste of strawberries with the start of summer.

References to strawberries in Britain trace back to at least the 16th century, according to Samantha Bilton, a food historian who has written about strawberries for English Heritage, a charity that manages hundreds of historic buildings and monuments. Then, a small, wild variety of the fruit was gathered fresh in the woods and hedges of the country, and enjoyed at banquets with sugar and spices that were unavailable to the lower classes.

Such additions – including cream – overcame a Tudor-period view that eating wild fruit was dangerous, and as the popularity of strawberries 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 the most glorious thing,” said Bilton, who explained that the larger, modern British strawberry can trace its roots to the 19th century, when horticulturists experimented with larger, juicier fruits that originated from those imported. 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 later that day. Across the city, at the All England Club, strawberries have also made inroads as the snack of the annual Wimbledon tennis championships.

Today, the tournament’s multimillion-dollar strawberry operation is a somewhat supercharged version of Champion’s approach, one that not only involves same-day transportation from the farm to the store in the capital, but also uses barcodes and tracking, temperature control and vibration monitoring.

“Marion is an authority on strawberries,” said Perdita Sedov, the director of food and beverage at Wimbledon. “What she doesn’t know, I’m not sure anyone does.”

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

The strawberries are planted across several dates between January and April – a staggered approach that keeps the farm covered whether the warmth of spring comes early or late. The variety of strawberry that is mainly intended for Wimbledon – the Malling Centenary – is June, producing a large crop once in a short window, rather than perennial, or harvesting several times.

Regan and her team decide which of the farm’s 3,000 strawberry polytunnels will be dedicated to Wimbledon a few weeks before the tournament, and they choose from among the 800 or so seasonal workers for roles in the coveted selection operation.

This year, Yakhshiboev and his fellow pickers focused on strawberries planted across 15 to 20 acres of land — a small section of the roughly 400 acres devoted to soft fruit — where they searched for the perfect Wimbledon strawberries. According to Regan and Wimbledon staff, these can’t be too big, so the right number of them (10) will fit into a Wimbledon punnet. They should have red shoulders and no white under the green leaf. The strawberries cannot be too soft, and they must have a good texture. (Fruits that do not meet the standard can still be used in the likes of jams or gins attached to the tournament, to save on waste.)

Selected strawberries then make their way through the farm’s packing center, where each barcoded batch can be scanned to offer feedback to pickers. The fruits are then cooled, weighed and packed.

At about 5am, a truck collects that day’s Wimbledon order, with Regan and her team able to add monitors for temperature and vibration that they can track back at the farm.

On the second Monday of the tournament, approximately 170,000 strawberries entered a loading dock under No. 1 Court before 9 a.m. They were then taken through a series of tunnels and across the grounds to a preparation area affectionately known as Strawberry Central, hidden under Center Court. . There, while classic rock played on the radio, the fruits of the day were peeled by members of a 30-person crew that rotates between 8 am and 11 pm

At 10 a.m., 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 deck, Kate Daly, 34, and Jarlath Daly, 42, from County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, sat enjoying their first visit to Wimbledon and their first taste of the snack before heading to No. 1 Court . A few feet away, friends Sally Fitzpatrick, 26, and Phoebe Hughes, 25, from London, had been to the tournament before. They knew the drill.

“It’s just that nostalgia,” Hughes said, holding a red cardboard cupcake of fresh strawberries, topped with cream, that has been priced at 2.50 a pound — or a little more than $3 — since 2010. “You just have to do it when you come. to Wimbledon.”

Back in Mereworth, Regan has been getting her tennis updates from her son, Ben, as management of her farm and its most famous client often enters the evening. Yakhshiboev’s shift ended around lunchtime, but the next morning, he would be joined again by the drivers, the weighmen, the packers and washermen, the porters, the peelers, the sellers and the buyers, ready for their part in the journey of those strawberries from seed to Central Court.

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

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