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Strawberry is Wimbledon champ, but hold the pepper

By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - They don't have pepper with strawberries at Wimbledon anymore, but 28 tonnes of berries covered in 20,000 pints (11,365 liters) of cream will have been eaten by the end of the men's final on Sunday.

Asked to rank the most popular items at the grass-court championship, Jonathan Parker, director of catering, said: "Strawberries by far, and second would be water and three would be Pimm's" - the fruity British summer liqueur.

Thursday was the hottest day so far at the 13-day tournament and some of those queuing in the 28 Celsius (82 Fahrenheit) heat for the dish - that is almost as famous at Wimbledon as the tennis - cast longing glances toward the ice-cream stand.

Others, though, kept their eyes on the prize, among them American Sarah Kobrin from the Washington area who was visiting with her 16-year-old daughter Frances to recreate an experience she'd had as a teenager with her mother at Wimbledon in 1980.

Kobrin couldn't remember much about that trip 34 years ago except that it was "wonderful and exciting" and that the strawberries, which come from nearby Kent, were "better than American strawberries because they don't travel so far".

The strawberries are "delightful", Frances said after tasting one, adding that they should "definitely be part of the balanced Wimbledon diet".

Strawberries have been exactly that, ever since at least the late 19th century when they were part of afternoon tea, according to Honor Godfrey, curator of the Wimbledon Museum.

Late June, when the tournament begins, is the prime growing season for English strawberries and they were a fixture of tea in Victorian times, when the first Wimbledon gentlemen's singles tournament was played in 1877, Godfrey said.

A newspaper report from 1907 of a women's match that was interrupted by rain tells of how the fruit may have helped dash one player's hopes.

The pause in play permitted Blanche Hillyard, one of the repeat women's champions, to eat what the London newspaper described as a "fearful" tea that included sugar-rich Bath buns, seven slices of bread and butter, three slices of cake and three plates of strawberries.

"No sooner had she finished than the referee requested her to play. She lost her semi-final match and complained bitterly to the committee and to the Daily Mail," Godfrey said, reading from her account of the newspaper's report.

No one seems to know when strawberries started being served with cream, though some accounts say the tradition began at the court of Henry VIII where cooks often had to prepare meals for 1,000 people or more, and poured cream on strawberries as a quick option.

"I've got actually no idea of that," Godfrey said. "But I do know that when I came here in the '70s you could get pepper on your strawberries, black pepper, because a lot of the Scandinavians had pepper with their strawberries, instead of sugar."

That option is no longer available. When asked for pepper at the strawberry kiosk, one young woman behind the counter looked aghast while her companion said of the proposed combination: "It sounds weird."

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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