Strawberry racket sweeter than ever

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SWEET and succulent they may be. But at pounds 1.75 a bowl, strawberries at Wimbledon can leave a bitter taste in the mouth.

There are 10 or 12 in a helping, which averages out at 15p or 17p per fruit, or roughly pounds 5.25 a pound. The cream and sugar are optional, and disposable bowls and spoons are included in the price.

All England Club officials say that knocking the price of the Wimbledon strawberry is as regular a ritual as the tournament itself.

They point out that compared with the other outdoor events to be seen at this summer, stawberry prices in SW19 are positively soft.

Six or seven fruit went for around pounds 2.50 this year at Royal Ascot, the Chelsea Flower Show and the Stella Artois tennis at Queen's Club. At Henley Regatta this weekend, people paid a staggering pounds 3.65.

Moreover, Wimbledon straw- berry inflation has lagged behind the headline rate over the past five years, rising by just 9 per cent. The RPI gained 25 per cent in the same period.

Of course, the cheaper option is to buy your own and sneak them in. Sainsbury will sell you 400g of English Elsanta strawberries for pounds 1.49. Pints of cream, at 99p, are on special offer for the Wimbledon fortnight. Safeway's strawberries cost pounds 1.25 for 454g, and Tesco's come in at pounds 1.69 for 454g. Marks and Spencer charge a premium pounds 1.99, for a high specification product.

If you go squishy contemplating even shop prices, picking your own comes in cheaper. The top whack is about pounds 1.20 a pound - many farms ask for less.

Pick-your-own cancels the farmer's harvesting, packaging and distribution costs, as well as the retailer's margins. These costs account for most of the price you pay at the supermarket (see table).

British strawberries are a blushing success story this summer. The market value has grown by 26 per cent in two years to pounds 73m. Foreign imports have declined by 12 per cent, helped by the weakness of sterling.

Richard Crane, specialist strawberry accountant at Touche Ross, says the boom is partly due to the increasing sophistication of agricultural techniques. Investment in tunnels and irrigation is prolonging the season. British strawberries are now available from April through to Decem- ber. Out-of-season fruit command premium prices, and better profits for the producers.