Cream of the crop

A new strawberry that's delicious and very good looking is about to reach the supermarket shelves.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Tomorrow fans of tennis will be heading to Wimbledon for the first day of this year's championships. But although the event is also a treat for the lovers of strawberries and cream (as much a part of the fortnight as tantrums and rain), this year there's a more important date on the calendar for followers of the fruit. In a fortnight's time, Jubilee, the first outstanding new commercially grown strawberry in 20 years, hits the high street. And having had a sneak preview, I can reveal that Jubilee is a sensation.

Tomorrow fans of tennis will be heading to Wimbledon for the first day of this year's championships. But although the event is also a treat for the lovers of strawberries and cream (as much a part of the fortnight as tantrums and rain), this year there's a more important date on the calendar for followers of the fruit. In a fortnight's time, Jubilee, the first outstanding new commercially grown strawberry in 20 years, hits the high street. And having had a sneak preview, I can reveal that Jubilee is a sensation.

Jubilee has that intense, heady fragrance unique to the best of British fruit and totally absent from much of the all-looks, no-taste stuff imported from Spain. Not that Jubilee lacks good looks – it's a stunner as bright as crimson lip gloss. Each one is a perfectly symmetrical heart shape. And when you bite into it, it explodes with juice. It has a balance of sweetness and acidity which makes adding sugar or cream an irrelevance.

For a modern strawberry this is as good as it gets, leaping ahead of Elsanta, the most widely grown strawberry in Britain, which represents 70 per cent of the national crop – the other 30 per cent made up almost entirely of other, even hardier, commercial varieties.

Elsanta has been a fine strawberry; developed in a Dutch nursery in 1972, it's tasty, colourful and robust. It was popularised in the early 1990s by Marks & Spencer, which saw that it was better than the dull commercial varieties of the day. These were hardy fruit developed to replace old-fashioned British varieties, such as Cambridge Favourite and Royal Sovereign – prized for their fragrance but fragile in the market place.

Not content with this success, M&S has continued to search for a successor. The company's fruit buyer, Stuart Stubbins, says, "It's the gut-wrenching challenge in any big company that you must keep finding something newer and better. We felt Elsanta has been getting tired and feared the stock was beginning to degenerate. There have been signs of impure – not tasting true – eating quality."

So, four years ago, the company delegated a newly appointed horticultural research scientist, Louise Sutherland, to find them another a berry with superior perfume, juice and taste. This is about as easy as picking a winning lottery ticket. In fact, a lottery isn't a bad description of the "science" of plant breeding – crossing one plant with another in the hope of capturing the best qualities of both.

Sutherland teamed up with strawberry grower Kent Gardens to supervise the planting of 17,000 varieties. This is the horticultural equivalent of buying 17,000 lottery tickets in the hope that one will come good – but, get the right plant, and you win the jackpot. Many seedlings came from the world's largest strawberry bank, Driscoll's in California.

And now, after four years and an investment of £500,000, M&S has a winner. So last week, I find myself travelling with Sutherland and Stubbins to Kent. We drive to the heart of the Garden of England which now supports the country's most extensive strawberry fields. We are here to meet Nick Marston, managing director of KG which grows 50 per cent of strawberries sold in UK supermarkets. But the group had humble beginnings, starting out 30 years ago as a co-operative when seven farmers clubbed together to share lorries to take their fruit to market.

Marston drives us on to Wickhambreaux, a beautiful Tudor village near Canterbury where KG partner Paul Kelsey farms 130 acres of strawberries. Just one acre is devoted to a stand of "Spanish greenhouses", 4m-high tunnels where the precious plants are nursed.

The 100m double rows of bushy-leafed plants are a sight to see, exploding with beautiful red fruit. These are not Jubilee but hundreds of other experimental plants also under trial. Could I pick a winner?

To my surprise, despite trying dozens, I hardly find one that tastes pleasant. "These are horrible, aren't they?" laughs grower John Holt-Rix. "This one tastes like cologne. Some are like apples and pears. Can you smell Stilton?" He plunges his hand into a bush and pull out the offending fruit.

"Why are they so horrible?" I ask Sutherland. It's all in the genes, she says. Human genes are diploid, that is, they confer the characteristics of only one pair of genes. Strawberries are, unfortunately, octaploid – eight different genes conferring inherited characteristics. So, getting it right really is more luck than science.

In the summer of 1999, Sutherland paced the plants, picking and tasting 17,000 fruit several times, most of them horrible. It was laborious work, but the good ones stood out. "We marked the best ones with orange flags," says Holt-Rix. "At the end of the day I'd think I'd picked some winners. I'd go to bed with my teeth on edge because of the acidity. Then the next day, I'd go back and find they weren't so good after all."

At the end of the first season, only 39 of the 17,000 plants made the grade. These "mother-plants" were grown on to produce up to 30 "daughter-plants" each. Finally, in the summer of 2000, they found their winner, No GUK 14. "It stood out by miles," says Sutherland. "It had the colour, shape, texture, juiciness and taste. But we still needed more trials to check the stricter criteria of appearance and sugar content."

At last, I was taken to see the precious Jubilee plants. The earth here is 5m deep offering perfect drainage. Long rows of soil are banked up, laid with drip-feed pipes to provide water and nutrients, then wrapped in black polythene to inhibit weeds. The strawberries, grown as pot plants, are inserted into slits.

We drove back past the Hop Farm, Beltring, with its Victorian oasthouses, and in its day Whitbread's Kent headquarters. Today, it is hosting the County Strawberry Festival and a Foodlovers' Fair. Alas, they won't get to taste a Jubilee yet. That privilege has been confined to the Queen, who given hers in a gold basket, just a few days before me. *

Jubilee will initially be available exclusively in 40 major M&S stores

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