Strawberries and cream: a Wimbledon tradition with a long history

With the commencement of Wimbledon, our thoughts – naturally – turn towards that perennial British summer favourite, fresh strawberries and cream.

Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (or rather, his cook!) is often credited with first serving this treat; legend has it that the king and court descended on Wolsey’s home, Hampton Court and the harassed cook, in an inventive moment, decided to serve wild strawberries and cream as one of the desserts at the banquet. Perhaps he was running out of time to produce anything more complicated? Dairy produce was considered  ‘peasant food’ but, if the king ate it, then everyone else was going to as well. And so the combination gained popularity which continued, and during the long eighteenth-century people enjoyed their strawberries and cream just as much as we do today.

Dessert Still Life by John F. Francis.
Dessert Still Life by John F. Francis. Yale University Art Gallery

A popular cookbook, Cookery reformed; or, The Lady’s assistant, 1755, had this advice:

There are two sorts of strawberries, those that grow in gardens, and those that will not. The garden strawberries are best, and most in esteem, of which some are red, and some are white. They should be chosen large, ripe, full of juice, with a fragrant smell, and a vinous taste. They are cooling, quench thirst, promote urine and take off the heat of the stomach. They may be eaten after dinner with cream, and sugar, or with wine, without any prejudice, avoiding excess. They are very useful in hot weather, especially to those of warm constitutions.

Still Life with Wild Strawberries, Adriaen Coorte, 1705.
Still Life with Wild Strawberries, Adriaen Coorte, 1705. Mauritshuis

STRAWBERRIES AND CREAM

ARCHIBALD DICK informs his friends, and the public in general, that he continues as formerly to sell STRAWBERRIES and CREAM, at his house on Leith Walk, the first above the Botanic Garden. Besides the different apartments in the house, he has pitched two Marquees in his garden, for the better accommodation of company.

Families in the New Town may be served with the above, at his Spirit Shop, west end of Register Street, where the fruit will arrive fresh from the garden three times every day, viz. at six o’clock in the morning, one o’clock in the afternoon, and seven in the evening. Other FRUITS likewise in their season.

Calendonian Mercury, 19th June 1788

Strawberrys, Scarlet Strawberrys from The Cries of London, 1795.
Strawberrys, Scarlet Strawberrys from The Cries of London, 1795. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The basket in hands of the seller above is a pottle, and up to around 50 or 60 of these would be carried in the large basket balanced on her head.

Strawberries – Brought fresh gathered to the markets in the height of their season, both morning and afternoon, they are sold in pottles containing something less than a quart each. The crier adds one penny to the price of the strawberries for the pottle which if returned by her customer, she abates. Great numbers of men and women are employed in crying strawberries during their season through the streets of London at sixpence per pottle.

A Lady in Full Dress, Seen from Behind by Samuel Scott.
A Lady in Full Dress, Seen from Behind by Samuel Scott. The Tate

In June 1813, Lady Smith Burges held a public breakfast on the terrace of her Piccadilly townhouse, resembling a fête champêtre. As the guests arrived, at the fashionably late hour (for a breakfast) of 3 o’clock in the afternoon, serenaded by Mr Gow’s Band, they were provided with delicacies laid out on various tables, all provided by the well-known Regency caterers, Gunters. Strawberry and cream ices were a highlight of the repast.

Frederick Nutt, formerly apprenticed to the confectioner Domenico Negri (who sold ice cream from his shop under the sign of The Pot and Pineapple in Berkeley Square from the 1760s), published a recipe book, The Complete Confectioner, in 1789. From that book, we have a recipe for strawberry ice cream which may be similar to that served by Gunters.

Strawberry Ice Cream

Take a large spoonful of strawberry jam, add a pint of cream and a little cochineal; put it into your freezing pot and cover it; put the freezing pot into a pail, and some ice all round the pot; throw a good deal of salt on the ice in the pail, turning the pot round for ten minutes, then open your pot, and scrape it from the sides, cover it up again, and keep turning it for some time, till your cream is like butter, and as thick; put it in your moulds, put them into a pail, and cover it with ice and salt for three quarters of an hour, till you find the water is come to the top of the pail; do not be sparing of salt, for if you do not use enough it will not freeze: dip your mould into water, and turn it out on your plate to send to table.

A basket of strawberries
A basket of strawberries, English school. Christie’s

So, in what other ways did the Georgians devour strawberries. Well, never mind deep fried Mars Bars today, how about battered strawberries? From Cookery reformed; or, The Lady’s assistant, 1755, we offer a recipe for Strawberry Fritters.

Having made a batter with flour, a spoonful of sweet oil, another of white wine, a little rasped lemon-peel, and the whites of two or three eggs, make it pretty soft, so as just to drop with a spoon. Mix it with some large strawberries, and drop them with a spoon into the hot fritters. When they are of a good colour, take them out, and drain them on a sieve. When they are done, strew some sugar over them, and glaze them.

Basket of Strawberries, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, 1761.
Basket of Strawberries, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, 1761. The Athenaeum

The 1808 (unofficial) edition of Elizabeth Raffald’s, The Experienced English Housekeeper (first published in 1769) contains recipes for preserving strawberries and for making strawberry jam, both perfect to make the fruit last through to the colder months.

To preserve strawberries whole

Get the finest scarlet strawberries with their stalks on before they are too ripe, then lay them separately on a china dish, beat and sift twice their weight of double refined sugar, and strew it over them, then take a few ripe scarlet strawberries, crush them, and put them into a jar, with their weight of double refined sugar beat small, cover them close, and let them stand in a kettle of boiling water till they are soft, and the syrup is come out of them, then strain them through a muslin rag into a tossing-pan, boil and skim it well, when it is cold put in your whole strawberries, and set them over the fire till they are milk warm, then take them off, and let them stand till they are quite cold, then set them on again and make them a little hotter, do so several times till they look clear, but do not let them boil, it will fetch the stalks off; when the strawberries are cold, put them into jelly glasses, with the stalks downwards, and fill up your glasses with the syrup; tie them down with brandy papers over them.

They are very pretty among jellies and creams, and proper for setting out a dessert of any kind.

Still Life of a Bowl of Strawberries, Standing Cup, a Bottle of Rose Water, a Sugar Loaf and a Box of Sugar; The Merchant's House
Still Life of a Bowl of Strawberries, Standing Cup, a Bottle of Rose Water, a Sugar Loaf and a Box of Sugar; The Merchant’s House

To make Red Strawberry Jam

Gather the scarlet strawberries very ripe, bruise them very fine, and put to them a little juice of raspberries, beat and sift their weight in sugar, strew it among them, and put them in the preserving pan, set them over a clear slow fire, skim them and boil them twenty minutes, then put them into pots or glasses for use.

Sources not mentioned above:

Morning Post, 24th June 1813

Itinerant Traders of London in their Ordinary Costume with Notices of Remarkable Places given in the Background, William Marshall Craig, 1804

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7 thoughts on “Strawberries and cream: a Wimbledon tradition with a long history

  1. Looking at the ice cream recipe I was struck by the lack of sugar (none apart from that already in the jam). From my experience of making traditional ice creams this recipe will set very hard, difficult to eat until it has half melted unless you want to bend your spoon, but perfect for setting in molds.

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  2. artandarchitecturemainly

    In a lecture today, I was discussing the implications of Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford and her concept of afternoon tea. She died in 1857, just a few years after John F. Francis painted his beautiful work “Dessert Still Life”. Your still life showed everything I would have wanted to examine visually – luscious food, a gorgeous silver pot, delicate porcelain, small tables for the ladies etc.

    Like

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