UNITED KINGDOM (The Guardian) - British strawberries, usually synonymous with summer, are appearing on supermarket shelves this week, more than two months before the traditional start of the season.
The fruit, long associated with the social season at Ascot, Henley and Wimbledon rather than the Lent deprivations of March, has had its own season stretched due to milder weather and technological innovations. Historically, in England, strawberries started appearing on May 1 and were available until the end of September.
M&S and Tesco intend to have the British-grown fruit in selected stores this week, with availability increasing throughout the spring.
Henry Maulik, Tesco's strawberry buyer, said: "The arrival of the first English strawberries marks the start of the UK fruit season, and is a great indicator that spring is just around the corner." According to the industry body British Summer Fruits the strawberry season was only six weeks long 25 years ago, but industry investment has extended this by up to nine months. In 2014, British-grown fruit was being sold in supermarkets in December.
Early British strawberries have been grown, usually, in the warmer climes of Kent, Sussex and Wales, but computerised glasshouse technology now lets producers in Lancashire and Scotland be among the first to deliver.
The early batches will be of the Lusa variety, developed specially for early fruiting, as well as taste, large size and deep colour.
Medlar Fruit Farms, in Lancashire, is expecting to grow strawberries until mid-November this year. The company's managing director, Steve Ball, said: "We're pleased to have been able to put Lancashire well and truly on the map for strawberries. We've been working with Tesco to extend the British season so that shoppers can enjoy them for even longer." Strawberries, technically not a berry but rather an aggregate accessory fruit, have been eaten since Roman times when they were used for medicinal purposes. In 14th century France, Charles V had 1,200 strawberry plants in his royal garden, and early 15th century western European monks included the wild strawberry in their illustrations.
In England, demand for the fruit rose regularly from the mid 16th century. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey , at the court of Henry VIII, has been credited as the first to create the timeless combination of strawberries and cream, which remains so popular five centuries on.