Strawberries themselves have a long history, with mentions in Roman literature for their medicinal properties. Over the centuries that followed, strawberry plants were used to treat health conditions ranging from depression and labour pains to inflammatory diseases and bad breath. In the 14th century, it was the French who first took wild strawberries from the forests to actively cultivate them in gardens. Since then, more than 100 different species of strawberries have been discovered.
Throughout the ages, strawberries have captured the imaginations of many. The fruit was seen as a symbol for Venus, the Goddess of Love, because of its heart shape and red colouring. It’s also seen as a symbol of virtue, hence why medieval stone masons carved strawberries into designs on church altars and pillars. More quirkily, Thérésa Cabarrus or ‘Madame Tallien’ – a prominent figure in Parisian social life during Napoleon’s era – used to bathe in the juice of fresh strawberries. She reportedly used 10kg of the fruit per bath! However, not everyone saw strawberries in a positive light. Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn had a strawberry shaped birth mark, which many at the time said proved she was a witch.
Myths and historical stories also contribute to the possible origins of combining strawberries with dairy products. In the 14th century rural France, wedding breakfasts apparently consisted of strawberry and sour cream soup. Over in Bavaria, some country dwellers still tie baskets of strawberries to the horns of their cattle. This is said to attract magic elves, who allegedly adore strawberries. In turn, the elves use their magic to ensure healthy future calves and an abundance of milk.
It’s back in England during Henry VIII’s era when strawberries and cream officially became a trend. In the early 1500s, Hampton Court Palace was built on the banks of the River Thames for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who at the time was King Henry VIII’s right hand man. The kitchens at Hampton Court were some of the largest in England and several hundred people were served food every day. Following abundant meals consisting of dozens of meats, the cooks were under pressure to make quick desserts. Although dairy products were consumed mostly by the poor in those times, someone in Hampton Court’s kitchens made a bold decision to add cream to locally harvested strawberries. After the dish was served at a banquet in 1509, strawberries and cream soon became a stalwart of the lavish Tudor feasts hosted at the palace on a regular basis.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Although Thomas Wolsey himself is unlikely to have made the culinary decision that defined the future of British desserts, he is the one who has gone down in the history books for the strawberries and cream creation. Unfortunately, the genius Hampton Court cook who really created the dish remains unknown to this day.
Strawberries and cream were served to all spectators at the first Wimbledon tournament in 1877. As well as strawberries being a seasonal food at this time of year, strawberries and cream had continued to become a very fashionable summertime treat in England after the Tudors.
It’s been 507 years since the first helping of strawberries and cream was served at Hampton Court Palace, and almost 140 years since the first serving of strawberries and cream was dished up at Wimbledon. Sometimes, it seems trends stick. An estimated 150,000 servings of strawberries and cream are served at the tennis championships every year.
Whether magic elves in Bavaria or Henry VIII’s reign are responsible for perpetuating the strawberries and cream tradition, one thing is for sure. Strawberries + cream = British summertime. We wouldn’t want it any other way.
In July 2017 we’re celebrating the strawberry’s amazing life story this month with a strawberry edition of our afternoon tea. The afternoon tea comes complete with a towering tray of delectable finger sandwiches, home baked scones with Cornish clotted cream and homemade jam, as well as mini cakes, tea and a glass of A.Robert, rose Champagne or sparkling elderflower and mint presse.