May the force be with you
At this time of year, it always seems like there's a real lack of produce to make the most of in the kitchen. My veg patch is all but barren. Ok, so I could get the root veg out again, but quite frankly, I need a change.
So, yay for rhubarb!
The English can (go us) claim to be the first people in the world to force rhubarb. Global dominating rhubarb forcers…
The candy cane sticks of rosiness have a history of great depth, with their earliest recorded use dating back to 2700BC. Crumble and fool were not on the menu though and rhubarb was in use as an important drug of the time. Seen as a cure for ailments of the gut, lung and liver, it was so sought after that in 1657 it could command three times the price of Opium in England. The big bucks.
Rhubarb began to establish itself as an English cooking ingredient in the late 18th century and it was in 1817 when the forcing process was discovered at Chelsea Physic Gardens. As with all great discoveries, it came about by accident… some roots were fortuitously covered with soil in the depth of winter and it was only some weeks later, on removing said soil, that tender shoots were noticed. From this initial realisation, commercial growers in the London area began growing (or blanching) rhubarb by delving it into darkness. Some took it further by actually lifting the roots and placing them in buildings to continue their growth.
Yorkshire then became the first place in the world to erect special sheds just for the exclusive purpose of tending to the forcing of rhubarb. The fruit/vegetable/stem (it’s a much debated issue, for another time) produced in Yorkshire was of such good quality that the area between Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford began to be known as The Rhubarb Triangle – the crucially important world epicentre of forced rhubarb. Don’t pretend like you don’t care. Our Yorkshire crop is the champagne of the rhubarb world.
Just to cement its fame, the rhubarb is harvested by candle light in order to maintain the tenderness of the shoots and make sure that growth continues. God forbid the ‘crowns’ get exposed to too much light and cease to grow. Can you imagine?
Anyhoo, back to the kitchen… rhubarb is incredibly versatile and its fruity sourness makes it a wonderful ingredient to start with. Douse it with maple or date syrup and a slick of cream if you’ve got a sweet tooth, but I much prefer it in savoury dishes. I’m thinking pickled rhubarb, blood orange and caper salsa for pan-fried mackerel, chicken with white wine and rhubarb or maybe a sneaky rhubarb and star anise sauce to go in a sandwich with leftover roast pork… The world is your rhubarb.