Behind-the-scenes at Hugh Lowe Farms: what makes Jubilee strawberries so sweet
By Izzy Brimeau
Wimbledon might be over but our love for strawberries hasn’t diminished. Warmer weather is the signpost for all things berry – tarts, cakes, salads, ice cream, alcoholic beverages, non-alcoholic beverages and everything in between. Sweet, succulent and heart-shaped, for me, it is the Jubilee strawberry that steals the prize for best in show.
I visited Hugh Lowe Farms, in Kent, to witness the farm-to-fork journey of the royal strawberry with my own eyes. The farm is one the largest independent berry growers in the UK and has been family-run since 1893. Marion Regan runs and owns the business, which has come a long way from her great-grandfather selling strawberries at the Covent Garden markets in the late 1800’s. Spending her life around the heart-shaped fruit has not diverted Marion’s taste buds – she still eats them every day – her most preferred way being straight from the punnet.
Marion explained that the Jubilee strawberry is an ever-bearer – meaning that the same plant will continue to flower throughout the summer, ultimately producing endless fruit during the warmer months. The blushing berry is still very dependent on Mother Nature though – the July heat wave that shocked the country also shocked the fruit – the harvest struggled in the harsh heat and the results were less than fruitful (excuse the pun) during this time.
After eating almost an entire punnet at Jubilee HQ I ventured out to the farm itself. The Kentish countryside is a fair-cry from my London home – standing in the field was both calming and aromatic. The smell of the strawberries enveloped me and left me in a sense of harmonic bliss. I later found out that the aroma of this sweet berry has been proved to make people feel happier – I can vouch for that.
The strawberries are grown in tunnels, with curved poles holding up plastic sheeting, to protect them from harsh weather conditions. The berries themselves are propped up above the ground on a table-like structure to protect from pests and wet weather.
While I examined the growing conditions of this bright red fruit, it became apparent that the harvesting procedure is not as simple as plucking the biggest berry and popping it into a punnet. The workers are up early, starting at 6am, and are usually finished by midday – before the heat of the day sets in. They must work quickly and efficiently to meet both quality and quantity expectations. I was told that a skilled employee should be able to fill two punnets in under a minute. Each strawberry must be picked with at least one centimetre of the stalk remaining and placed carefully into the punnet to ensure there is no bruising.
The Jubilee strawberry in unique in the sense that the plant puts all its energy in producing bigger, sweeter and perfectly heart-shaped fruit. This means that there are fewer defective strawberries but, even so, the screening process is still thorough and meticulous. I witnessed first hand how precise the factory workers, and the procedures they carry out, are.
In the factory, each member of staff must scrub down, remove all jewellery and wear both a hairnet and uniform. I had to do this too – it was very fetching. Each employee has a specific role from checking the strawberries as they arrive at the factory to weighing and packaging the best berries. Once the strawberries have been given the ‘okay’ on arrival they are then sent through freezing tunnels on large trays and stored in a cool room, for a minimum of two hours, until they are ready for packaging. At a temperature of 5°C or less – that room gets pretty chilly!
Once removed from the cool room, each tray is carefully divided up into punnets for the shops, weighed and checked once more. The punnet is then sent down a conveyor belt where it is sealed and stickers are applied. Throughout this process punnets are randomly selected and quality control checked – ensuring that you, the end customer, buys only the best produce.
After de-robing from both hairnet and what I pretended was a doctor’s coat, I left the factory back out into the warm country air – with, of course, an over-filled punnet in hand. I looked down at my heart-shaped wonders and felt a sense of appreciation for all the hard work that goes into the glowing ruby red berries that we all love so much.
Here’s to the great British strawberry! Want to find out lots of different ways to use strawberries? Here are our favourite recipes.