A guide to rhubarb

  • By
    Carol Wilson - Food writer

Wakefield-born Carol celebrates the arrival of forced rhubarb at the beginning of every year, perhaps the only fruit (or rather, vegetable) known to scream...

RhubarbI was born and brought up in Wakefield, Yorkshire, part of the famous Rhubarb Triangle. Like most Yorkshire people, I love rhubarb, particularly at the start of the year, when it's much prized amongst gardeners and allotment owners as the first of the season's fruits - although strictly speaking, rhubarb is a vegetable. I still enjoy rhubarb in hearty steamed puddings, fruity crumbles, moist cakes, delicious jams, savoury chutneys, sharp tasting pickles, mouth-watering tarts and flans and more recently, as an accompaniment to pork or duck - rhubarb's tart flavour cuts through the richness of the meat. I've also tried rhubarb wine - although personally I found it to be an acquired taste!

Early or 'forced' rhubarb is available from January to April and came into being after workmen digging a trench in 1817 threw soil over some rhubarb roots. When the soil was later removed, young, tender, brightly coloured shoots were revealed; blanching the stems (depriving them of light) had made them much more succulent and tender. This led to rhubarb being 'forced' into growth in heat and darkness, originally in mushroom sheds, then finally in purpose-built forcing sheds.

Rhubarb crumbleThe frost pocket of land between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield is particularly suited to producing early rhubarb. The superb geographical and climatic conditions were supplemented by the use of a high-nitrogen organic feed called 'shoddy' - a bi-product of the local woollen industry. Local coal supplied fuel for heating the sheds and excellent rail links provided transport to markets throughout the country. Each season, thousands of tons would be transported by rail to London's Covent Garden Market on the 'Rhubarb Express'. In the 1880s Yorkshire was the main growing area - in its heyday the county produced over 5,000 tons of forced rhubarb annually and still produces around 70% of the country's forced rhubarb.

I visited the darkened sheds in January when they're packed with 'crowns' of rhubarb, which are kept warm and moist. The plants are grown and harvested by candlelight, so that the stems remain pink. The rhubarb grows almost 5cm per day and it's really true that you can hear it eerily creaking or squeaking in the darkness as it pushes its way through the soil! When the leaves unfold from their buds, the tender pale pink shoots are harvested.

Roasted rhubarb with mascarpone The young pink stems have a refreshingly sharp flavour. There's no need to peel young rhubarb, just remove any stringy bits. If you have a lot of rhubarb you can blanch the stems in boiling water for about 45 seconds, drain well, cool, cut into pieces and freeze for up to three months. Limp rhubarb can be perked up by standing the stems upright in chilled water for about an hour.

A word of warning: rhubarb leaves are poisonous due to their relatively high oxalic acid content and must be discarded. The shredded leaves, mixed with water, were once used as an insecticide to spray over plants and bushes.

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