“Strawberries are rather like a fine cheese – they should always be eaten at room temperature and never straight from the fridge.”
So says Dennis Hillsdon, a self-confessed strawberry snob and grower extraordinaire who has four acres of the little beauties growing at his home and paradise that is Sharnfold Farm on Ersham Road at Stone Cross.
There may not have been too many ready for the picking at a recent event to mark National Strawberry Picking Day this month, but that didn’t stop me learning all I need to know about strawberries – and more besides – ahead of the forthcoming Aegon Tennis Championship in Eastbourne when tonnes of them will be served up with whipped cream and the obligatory glass of something fizzy.
Dennis has been at Sharnfold Farm since 1983 and started his successful Pick Your Own business in 1985.
What he doesn’t know about strawberries isn’t worth knowing.
“People used to come and pick lots of strawberries, take them home and make jams etc,” says Dennis.
“But all that has changed in recent years and now more people come with their families, make a day of it with a picnic and pick strawberries to enjoy there and then or take them home for pudding.”
“There are lots of varieties of strawberries but the rules are always the same. Pick them when they are pillar box red. And obviously the English strawberries are the best.”
The strawberries - so called because of the straw laid between the plants to stop the berries touching the ground and becoming covered in dirt and turning mouldy – would usually be ready for picking for late May, early June and continue until the first week of October.
This spring’s inclement weather may have put a dampener on our picking expedition but that didn’t stop myself and other journalists celebrating the return of the Aegon International Tournament to Eastbourne at our next stop which was the lovely Grand Hotel where staff have come up with the idea of offering a special Grand Slam themed afternoon tea for three weeks only.
Available from Saturday, June 24 – the opening weekend of the Aegon International Tournament – until the men’s final of Wimbledon on Sunday, July 16, The Grand’s themed afternoon tea is a treat not to be missed for fans of tennis and classic British food.
We were treated to sandwiches including ‘Queen’s’ coronation chicken and smoked salmon, warm freshly baked scones with English strawberry jam and clotted cream and a Pimms jelly, alongside a host of other tennis-themed treats.
As is tradition, the decadent tea was served with a wide variety of speciality teas, but for those of us who really felt like celebrating we also enjoyed one of the hotel’s limited edition tennis cocktails.
Created especially for the season by The Grand’s talented mixologists, the cocktails on offer are a ‘Grand Slam’ made with Midori lemon liqueur, ginger ale and fresh lime, and the ‘English Picnic’ featuring classic summer flavours with Chase English rhubarb vodka, strawberry syrup and fresh cream, topped off with frozen summer fruits.
Absolutely delicious and hit just the right spot.
Our conversation soon turned to tennis and the offerings both on and off court this year, including Ladies Day presented by Dove (Tuesday June 27) – an opportunity to dress up together and enjoy strawberries, Pimms and Champagne on the lawns of Devonshire Park.
There will be stellar prizes for best dressed patron, an array of samples up for grabs and a Dove photo booth to capture tennis memories for posterity.
This year also sees the return of the men and the star-studded line up is spearheaded by world number six and Eastbourne’s very own Johanna Konta.
For more information about the Aegon International Eastbourne visitw www.lta.org.uk/major-events/aegon-international-eastbourne/
The Tennis Themed Afternoon Tea is available at The Grand Hotel during the tournament from June 24, with cocktails also available throughout until the end of Wimbledon fortnight on July 16. See www.grandeastbourne.com for more information.
The tennis afternoon tea is available to book from Saturday, June 24, to Sunday, July 16, from 2.45pm-6.30pm from £26 per person. Cocktails can be added from £13.95.
To find out more or to book the themed tea, visit www.grandeastbourne.com/grand-slam-tennis-afternoon-tea or call reservations on Eastbourne 412345.
You can pick your own (PYO) fruit and vegetables, visit the Sharnfold Farm Shop, relax in the coffee shop, head out on a Farm Trail, play area and take part in school holiday events. For details visit http://www.sharnfoldfarm.co.uk