January heralds the exciting return of Yorkshire’s most famous food. Forced rhubarb is back on the menu to the delight of chefs all over Great Britain. Let’s take a look at how the humble allotment outcast became the darling of the Michelin star menu.
IT’s the prettiest, pinkest and most perfect of rhubarb, but it has not always enjoyed the star status that it now holds. Every January kitchens wait with excitement for the first delivery of Yorkshire forced rhubarb, not because there is nothing else to get excited about, but the short season always creates a stir among chefs and diners alike. It is produce to be proud of and has a unique northern heritage kept alive by a handful of growers.
The earliest recorded use of rhubarb is 2,700BC and in ancient times, when rhubarb was revered for its mysterious cathartic powers. Known by its Latin Name of ‘Rheum Rhapoticium’, rhubarb was used to treat a variety of ailments particularly gut, lung and liver problems. Marco Polo is attributed to bringing the plant to European shores in the 13th century when it was referred to as the Rhacoma root.
Rhubarb was so highly regarded and so sought after that in 1657 in England it could command three times the price of Opium. The first time the plant was seen growing in Britain was in the 16th century when the seeds were introduced in an attempt to grow and process the drug here, but the wrong strain was imported and eventually its use in this country went into decline as the British version simply did not work. It wasn’t until the 18th century that rhubarb became popular for cooking.
Today, only a small community of farms in Yorkshire’s ‘Rhubarb Triangle’’ keep this strange plant’s secrets alive.
Yorkshire rhubarb producers are centralised on the suitable soils between Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford, which became known as ‘The Rhubarb Triangle’. The position of the Rhubarb Triangle, situated within the shadows of the Pennines acts as a frost pocket. This geographical location has proved invaluable to the growers, as it provides the perfect weather conditions essential to the plant.
Remarkably, rhubarb is not a fruit at all – it’s actually a vegetable, the stem of a perennial plant. Its slender girth and bright colour are the effects of a technique called ‘forcing’. As legend has it, in 1817 when rhubarb was being grown in London at the Chelsea Physic Garden, someone accidentally left an upturned bucket on top of one of the plants. The rhubarb, struggling in this light-deprived environment, produced long, thin stems and small, pale leaves. Someone was savvy enough to try it and the flavour was deemed so exquisite that the accident soon became a technique.
Not only is the taste divine, but the health giving benefits are remarkable. Rhubarb is rich in calcium, fibre, magnesium, iron, vitamin C, B2, B3, provitamin A, with high levels of oxalic acid and is now classified as a superfood for its ratio of health benefits to calories – only 7 calories per 100 grams. Savvy slimmers have also realised it actually speeds up their metabolism and the high levels of calcium mean it is a fat-free alternative to dairy products which lowers cholesterol, making it ideal for your health conscious diners.
In February 2010, Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb was awarded Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the European Commission’s Protected Food Name scheme after being recommended by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Statistics show that in 1966 there were 1022 acres of rhubarb in the triangle, but by 1980 this had fallen to 422 acres. Since then it has fallen even further, in the Rhubarb Triangle there are now only around 12 growers of which we use only Robert Tomlinson in Pusdey.
“Not only is the taste divine, but the health giving benefits are remarkable. Rhubarb is rich in calcium, fibre, magnesium, iron, vitamin C, B2, B3, provitamin A, with high levels of oxalic acid and is now classified as a superfood for its ratio of health benefits to calories.”
Rhubarb was first grown in the area in the 1870s and at one stage there were more than 200 commercial operations, which have now dwindled to a handful. The triangle offers ideal growing conditions, with a deep, cold and moist topsoil. Growing a harvestable product takes up to three years, with the plant initially being grown outdoors and subjected to a specified number of frosts, then each winter, acres of rhubarb plants are transferred by hand into long, dark nursery sheds to be ‘forced’. They grow at an accelerated rate in the light-free hothouses, which are so completely silent you can hear the ‘pop’ as the buds of new stalks burst open. Workers harvest armfuls of stalks by candlelight to preserve the younger stems that are still growing, any light would spoil the crop. The candles do more than guide the pickers’ path. Once inside the dark sheds, where the rhubarb is kept at a temperature of 13C, the naked flames perform a clever trick. Each stalk of rhubarb, after two weeks in the pitch black environment, is desperate to glimpse even the faintest spot of light. On the promise of candlelight, the stalks force their way up out of their earthy nest.
The harvested stalks are tender, sweet, and a distinctive bright pink in colour with tiny curled yellow leaves that makes forced rhubarb instantly recognisable. Known as Champagne rhubarb it is considered a delicacy and can fetch prices three times higher than its more fibrous and bitter outdoor equivalent.
Wakefield Council in West Yorkshire holds an annual Rhubarb Festival in February, celebrating the area’s links and promoting the surviving rhubarb industry. A Farmers’ Market, cookery demonstrations, walks and tours of the forcing sheds are among the attractions. For more information go to http://www.facebook.com/rhubarbfestival.
Scientists and doctors believe that growers in the Rhubarb Triangle around Bradford, Wakefield and Leeds, are aiding the fight against cancer, while researchers at Sheffield Hallam University have found that baking British-grown rhubarb for 20 minutes can dramatically boost its levels of anti-cancer chemicals.
The findings, published with the Scottish Crop Research Institute and funded by the Centre for Food Innovation, showed that the chemicals, called polyphenols, could kill or prevent the growth of cancer cells. There is now hope that new, less toxic, treatments for the disease could be developed.
In short, Yorkshire rhubarb is good for both the palate and the body, so it makes sense to have it on any menu.
DID YOU KNOW?
- Rhubarb originates in Siberia, so obviously prefers a cold climate. Rhubarb also needs a lot of water and a good supply of nitrogen. As West Yorkshire is located close to the Pennines, the hilly backbone of Britain, the shadow of these hills creates not only a frost pocket but also provides a high level of rainfall which provides an essential water supply to the rhubarb growers.
- Leeds and the surrounding area was also the centre of the world’s wool industry and woollen waste from nearby shoddy mills was invaluable to the rhubarb growers. The fields were fertilised with the fibres, which, as they broke down provided a priceless source of nitrogen.
- Coal for heating the sheds was plentiful with the rich Yorkshire coalfields close by, and with coal, wool and now rhubarb to export from the county, Yorkshire became the crossroads of the British rail network and ensured that it was not so grim up north!
- The nightly ‘Rhubarb Express’ from Yorkshire would rapidly deliver the freshly harvested stalks to the London markets and onto Europe every night during the short, intense three month season. At the peak of the season this was as much as 200 tons a day.