It is rarely far from the limelight, so what is it that gives rhubarb the power to purge, pucker lips and excite celebrity chefs? Jeremy Hobson investigates the Rhubarb Triangle
The Rhubarb Triangle covers a 9-square-mile triangle in West Yorkshire, infamous for producing early forced rhubarb and then providing it to all corners of the UK. With rhubarb firmly in flavour, Jeremy Hobson wonders what it is that excites celebrity chefs and home cooks, and how it all began in the Rhubarb Triangle.
Do you have rhubarb from the Rhubarb Triangle? Try our rhubarb fool recipe for a delicious spring dessert.
THE RHUBARB TRIANGLE
A town boy and a country boy were playing together in the latter’s garden when the urban lad suddenly said, “What does your dad use all that manure for?” “We put it on our rhubarb,” replied the other. “That’s awful, we put custard on ours.” As a joke, it is old, but not as ancient as the plant itself, which originated in Siberia and has been known in parts of Asia for many centuries. Rhubarb was brought into Europe in the 15th century but it was not until the late 1700s that it began to be seen as a food source.
Rheum, the name by which the genus is known under the Linnaean system, is thought by some to be derived from the old french rubarbe.
Others suspect that it may have come from the Greek rheo, which means “to flow” and is presumably a reference to the plant’s laxative properties when ingested. Why the word rhubarb has been used by actors to simulate conversation during a crowd scene on stage, probably has nothing to do with the plant; it’s likely to be a corruption of “Rhu-bar-ba, rhu-bar-ba”, which was used in the theatre during Shakespeare’s time. More recently, it has been used as a sound device in radio dramas where the background noise for crowd scenes was often achieved by a group of people mumbling “rhubarb” under their breath while adding random inflections. This was parodied by Spike Milligan in various episodes of The Goon Show, where he tried to achieve the same effect using only three or four people.
THE RHUBARB TRIANGLE: SCOURING STOMACHS – AND PANS
Rhubarb has been used for medicinal reasons since ancient times. It was first grown in Britain for scientific purposes in the mid 1700s, probably at the Chelsea Physic Gardens and certainly at Edinburgh’s Botanical Gardens. It’s already proven to lower cholesterol, help prevent deep vein thrombosis and stimulate the body’s metabolic rate, and current research at Sheffield University is looking at the polyphenol content of forced rhubarb – polyphenols being thought to have a positive effect in preventing stomach cancer. Its use as a laxative is well known and the subject of many jokes. However, if you want to cleanse your saucepans rather than your internal tracts, look no further than boiling rhubarb stalks in a little water; the resultant acidic mix shines even the dullest of pan interiors in a matter of minutes. Alternatively, it can apparently be made into an organic insecticide against leaf-eating insects. Boil the rhubarb leaves in a few pints of water for 20 minutes, strain the liquid and then add soap flakes.
As a food source, rhubarb has had its ups and downs. In Victorian times, no self-respecting gardener would be without at least a couple of clumps of it in some corner of the vegetable patch. The wealthy would force theirs each spring with specially constructed rhubarb domes, while the ordinary grower found that he could achieve the same effect with the use of old chimney pots, upturned dustbins and galvanised buckets.
THE RHUBARB TRIANGLE: YORKSHIRE
During both world wars rhubarb provided a much-needed food source (the government even capped the price to keep it affordable to the majority), but during the Second World War, when sugar was rationed and almost non-existent, its tartness turned that particular generation against it. A decline in popularity followed and it could not compete against more interesting fruits being brought into the country during the Fifties and Sixties. As one “War baby” comments, “People tired of rhubarb; they’d eaten that much of the stuff.” Fortunately rhubarb is back in flavour. It has been promoted by celebrity chefs who champion its sharp taste as an accompaniment to high-fat meat and oily fish, as well as traditional puddings such as crumbles and pies.
The majority of Britain’s rhubarb crop comes from what is known as the Yorkshire Rhubarb Triangle – an area between Wakefield, Leeds and Bradford. The location of the Rhubarb Triangle is no casual accident; being a native of Siberia, rhubarb thrives in the cold, damp, loamy soil. For commercial marketing purposes, the positioning of the Rhubarb Triangle is perfect. In the days when produce was transported by railway, it was at the confluence of lines that went west to Manchester and Liverpool, east to Hull, north to Scotland (where rhubarb has apparently always been popular) and south to London’s Covent Garden market. Now that transport is by road, motorway intersections perform the same functions. Sadly, where in the days of the railways there were as many as 200 growers within the Rhubarb Triangle, there are probably only a dozen still in existence.
Possibly the best known of these is Janet Oldroyd Hulme, considered by many to be the “High Priestess of Rhubarb”. Although not the family business until 1942, rhubarb was grown by Janet’s grandfather a decade earlier. It is perhaps due to the efforts of Janet’s father Ken that the business is in today’s healthy state. “We never saw Dad when we were young,” says Janet. “He was always out in the fields, cleaning the flues for heating systems in the forcing sheds and meeting people to check out growing areas. He was also involved in setting up the Yorkshire Rhubarb Growers’ Association.”
RHUBARB TRIANGLE: CARE BY THE SHEDLOAD
Roots intended for forcing are kept outdoors for a minimum of two years and during this time no harvest is taken at the Rhubarb Triangle. The idea is that a maximum energy store is laid down in the root and not used by the plant for petiole (the small stalk attaching the leaf blade to the stem) production. “This energy store will be needed for growth once the plant is in the forcing shed,” says Janet. The roots are taken into the sheds by hand to reduce the chance of disease.
Before being placed on the compressed soil floors (concrete would cause moisture problems), they are power washed and from then on any watering is done via overhead irrigation. The sheds are insulated and the roof built low to conserve heat, which is supplied via a huge central heating system or propane- or diesel-fired burners. In the past, the Triangle’s close proximity to the Yorkshire coalfields meant that the sheds were heated by coal-fuelled boilers but, the British coal industry being what it is, things have changed over the past 25 years and those growers still in existence are constantly reassessing cost-efficient ways to provide heat. Wind turbines are a possibility for the future.
Despite the possible risk of disease in the warm, damp and dark environment, there are no sprays used in the forcing sheds. It is undesirable to spray chemicals on a crop which is being harvested every four days. As Janet quite rightly opines, “Disease is best prevented by knowledge.”
THE RHUBARB TRIANGLE: CATHARTIC AND CALMING
Although rhubarb varieties grow at varying rates, it generally takes three to four weeks to bring the roots on to the point where the delicate stems can be pulled – they are never cut for fear of damaging the parent plant. Grown in the dark to keep the stems blanched and straight, it is harvested by candlelight to avoid strong light which might damage the plant. David Westwood of D Westwood & Son starts his harvest in December, but February is the main cropping season, which lasts for four to six weeks, after which there is a marked deterioration in plant and crop quality. The roots are then rotovated back into the soil.
Rhubarb growing has become a tourist attraction, as is the Rhubarb Triangle. It is, at the right time of year, possible to take a guided tour around the forcing sheds on Janet’s farm. Visitors describe the experience as being “cathartic and calming”, “like being in a flotation chamber”, and, “amazing… if you’re quiet, you can hear the plants growing”. If, after a visit there, you haven’t had enough of rhubarb and have about £1,500 to spare, why not buy an oil-on-board painting by British artist James Gardener? Known for his whimsical and somewhat eccentric subject matter, many of his works of art feature English vicars, Morris dancers and… rhubarb.