Bumper strawberry crop predicted
Wimbledon fortnight is set to be bigger, sweeter and juicier than last year - and that is just the strawberries, according to industry experts.
Slathered in fresh cream, the summer fruit is a staple of the famous tennis tournament, and British growers say this year's crop will be earlier, bigger and sweeter than in 2013, as a result of the fifth warmest winter on record.
With the mild winter and arrival of Mediterranean temperatures this spring, ample supplies of home-grown strawberries will be on supermarket shelves three weeks earlier than last year.
Growers up and down the country also estimate that there will be a 10% increase in strawberry production compared to last year, despite the wettest winter in 250 years.
British Summer Fruits, the industry body that represents 98% of berries in supermarkets, reports that not only will it be an earlier and larger crop of British strawberries but consumers can also expect the berries to taste sweeter and juicier than normal.
With strawberries and cream one of the best-known elements of the SW19 Grand Slam, at least 28 tonnes of strawberries are expected to be eaten over the championship, served with more than 7,000 litres of fresh cream.
Around 8,615 punnets will be consumed every day during the tournament from Monday June 23 until Sunday July 6.
The enhanced sweetness and juiciness is due to good levels of sunshine this spring increasing the speed of photosynthesis, meaning that the plants will be producing more sugars on any given day than this time last year, according to experts.
The British strawberry season was just six weeks long 25 years ago, but decades of industry investment in new varieties and protective covers, means that consumers can enjoy the quintessentially British fruit for more than half the year.
British growers are now growing more strawberries under glass which means that there is more early and late home-grown fruit than ever before, reducing the need for imports.
Last year saw just over 46,000 tonnes supplied to supermarkets by members of British Summer Fruits, compared to nearly 51,000 tonnes expected this year.
Consumers can look forward to a taste of summer in October and even into November, as growers will be taking advantage of climate-controlled glasshouses to extend the season into the colder months.
Dutch and Belgian growers are now producing strawberries all year long and it will only be a matter of time before British growers follow their lead as supermarkets and consumer demand home-grown produce, experts say.
Laurence Olins, chairman of British Summer Fruits, said: "The first British strawberry of the year is the ultimate indicator that summer has arrived.
"This year strawberry fans can indulge in the treat even earlier than usual, and can look forward to an abundant supply right through to the autumn.
"More and more producers are growing strawberries in protected conditions, under glass or tunnels, so that the strawberry plants aren't exposed to the vagaries of the British weather to ensure first rate quality."