In memoriam: the British strawberry

  • @pvall
Make the most of the strawberries at Wimbledon this week. Even if they cost you 18 pence each - as they did last year - they will at least be English. The native strawberry is about to become a threatened minority.

In 1996 only half the strawberries consumed here were home-grown. The amount of land given over to strawberry cultivation is in decline. On the past decade's trends it will not be long before watery foreign imports outnumber the indigenous. In fact, home-grown varieties of strawberry were replaced long ago: three-quarters of all the strawberries sold here are now the single type known as the Elsanta, developed in Holland 15 years ago.

Elsanta is the supermarket dream fruit: bright appearance, long shelf- life and glossy, firm skin. It can be transported long distances without bruising. Its huge berry makes it quick and cheap to pick. It also has a number of drawbacks. Time for a jeremiad on the dynamics of modern consumerism.

First, this kind of fruit encourages the supermarkets in their strategy of centralised warehousing systems which means that, even if the berries are grown locally, they must travel miles to a regional warehouse and then back to the supermarket. Trips of 100 miles are not uncommon.

But more than that, the majority of our strawbs now come from the south of Spain which means a 1,000-mile journey by lorry, adding further to road traffic, the fastest-growing source of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.

This is not to mention the berries which arrive from Kenya, Zimbabwe, Australia and even, across 13,000 miles, from New Zealand - air transport using 37 times more fuel than carriage by road.

That is not even the most grievous environmental cost. To kill off soil and leaf disease, most growers have abandoned techniques like integrated pest management or crop rotation and resorted to the use of the chemical methyl bromide which greatly increases the rate at which the ozone layer is destroyed. Firms such as Sainsbury's are researching alternatives, but none have yet been found. Pesticide residues, albeit at approved levels, were found in 88 per cent of berries sampled recently by SAFE, the Sustainable Agriculture Food and Environment Alliance.

Then there is the question of jobs. Chemical-dependent cultivation is less labour-intensive than the old ways. Greengrocers close in the face of competition from the supermarkets as demand declines for the locally grown fruit which is more likely to be found in the corner shop.

Some of my complaint is just aesthetic. The attraction of any seasonal delicacy is diminished when it is available the year round. (This month, incidentally, is the time for eating peas from the pod. And we are coming up to a good time for wild salmon: when the posh demand from Henley, Ascot and Wimbledon is over, there are good quantities on the market for about another month at more reasonable prices.) But the main thing is the taste of these woody, watery abominations which masquerade as the delight of which a friend of Izaak Walton once said: "Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did."

It does not have to be thus. There are 60 or more strains of strawberry under cultivation in Europe, and in this country - even if the musky hautboy berry which Jane Austen pronounced as "infinitely superior" has vanished - in some pick-your-own farms, renowned older varieties such as Cambridge Late Pine and Sir Joseph Paxton survive amid others such as Cambridge Rival and Cambridge Favourite. In private gardens it is still possible to find the delicious Royal Sovereign or Honeoye, Tenira, Kouril and Aromel which are all too much trouble for large-scale production. Aficionados can seek out organic growers who are concentrating on good old varieties such as Cambridge Vigour and Hapill which give off the most tremendous smell and taste as strawberries used to.

It would be good to think that consumer pressure is forcing a reappraisal by the supermarkets. Alas, not. Indeed, they are moving in the opposite direction. God might not have been able to make a better berry, but the genetic engineers are already working on the project of the perfect strawberry all year round: a case of strawberry yields for ever. And global warming will doubtless mean that we will be able to grow huge quantities of it. Enjoy!