It is just about the end of the short British forced rhubarb season, and it is always a treat to see it nestled, glowing pink in a crate at the marketstalls, and it is always sad to see it disappear, as I think it is one of the most wonderful vegetables.
In Britain, the long thin bright pink stalks are grown in an area called the Rhubarb Triangle, also known as the Wakefield triangle, a nine mile square area of land contained by Leeds, Morley and Wakefield in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Here, the rhubarb is grown in large, heated, low-ceilinged sheds in complete darkness. Because the plants want sunlight, they are forced stretch and grow long and thin in the vain hope of catching some of the Sun’s rays. Hence it is called forced rhubarb. It is also called Champagne rhubarb by some. The rhubarb never gets to attain the green colour like normal field or garden rhubarb has; I think the biological term is chlorosed. It also never gets the chance to develop the very astringent sourness too, but it does still has the wonderful rhubarb flavour. The plants grow so quickly in their desperation to find light that you can actually hear them pop and crack as they stretch and grow. I imagine that it is pretty scary in those dark, dank sheds harvesting the rhubarb by candlelight.
So what is special about West Yorkshire when it comes to growing rhubarb? Apparently, it is the unique mix of soil and climate. I know that that might sound rather trite, but I think in this case it might actually be true; Wakefield is the only place in the UK where one can successfully grow liquorice and the reason for that is because of its soil. Yorkshire-produced Forced Rhubarb has been given Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the European Commission’s Protected Food Name scheme, just like Stilton Cheese, and famously not like Cornish pasties. That said the forced rhubarb I got was from Mexico.
It wasn’t until the discovery that rhubarb could be forced in the 1840s that the vegetable caught on as a ‘fruit’ in crumbles, pies &c. (it isn’t a true fruit as there are no seeds). Before then, like many plants, it was grown for medicinal purposes. It was such a revered drug for treating gut, lung and liver disorders that it was worth thrice the price of opium! It was first introduced into Europe by Marco Polo from Asia during the thirteenth century, and was first grown in Britain in the mid-seventeenth century.
Okay, that’s enough waffle, it is recipe time. Rhubarb is great for desserts and jams, and it is also great with fish, particularly oily fish. There are many recipes that I could add to the post, but the best has to be…
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This is my favourite way of eating rhubarb: tart fruit, sweet crunchy topping and loads of proper custard (link here for a recipe for that). I like to include some ginger in my crumble, they are a classic combination. Here I use it twice, ground ginger in the topping, and preserved ginger in with the gently stewed fruit. Orange zest and juice also work well as an alternative.
10 sticks of rhubarb, forced if possible
2 knobs of preserved ginger, chopped, plus one tbs of the syrup
4 tbs caster sugar
4 oz butter
4 oz Demerara sugar, or half caster sugar and half soft dark brown sugar
6 oz plain flour
2 oz oats
1 tsp ground ginger
Slice the rhubarb sticks into one inch lengths. If buying forced rhubarb, there should be no need for peeling, but older, field grown sticks might need it. Place the rhubarb and caster sugar in a saucepan with the ginger and syrup, plus a couple of tablespoons of water. Cover, and simmer gently until the rhubarb is tender, about 10 minutes. Try not to stir the rhubarb too much, as it easily breaks up. If there is a lot of liquid, take the lid off and let it simmer away a little. Add more sugar if necessary; field-grown rhubarb may need more. Cool.
Meanwhile, make the crumble topping by rubbing the butter into the flour, using fingers, mixer or processor. Stir in the flour, oats and ginger.
Pour the rhubarb into a pie dish, or baking dish and pile on the crumble topping. I like loads of topping, but if there is too much for you, freeze the remainder for future crumbles.
Bake at 160⁰C for 45 minutes. Serve with custard, cream or vanilla (or even better, ginger) ice cream.
14 responses to “The Rhubarb Triangle”
A vegetable!!! It may have been the lateness of the hour, or maybe the excess fanta, but that just caused me to exclaim (very loudly) “A vegetable?!!”
Now i am educated and hungry and I thank you for both 🙂
Well thank you. I do try my best!
Couple of quick thoughts
1. The crop was developed here because it simply loves wool waste as a slow release fertiliser – no limit to the supply of that way back in the nineteenth century. But in those days there was a longer season for field grown rhubarb as well and In autumn back in the fifties and even early sixties the fields between Wakefield and Mirfield used to be multicoloured in the autumn with a mixture of wool cleanings and shoddy waste.
2. There was actually a rhubarb train at around 4 or 5 am – can’t remember the exact time but early enough for the harvest to be shipped to it in the dark so the tops didn’t green
3. Spooky as it is to listen to the strange noises – you forgot the squeaks – from inside the shed, its even more weird to glue your ear to the door from the outside – sounds like a distant chattering crowd
4. Licorice – no – couple of miles away at Pontefract – why do you think the cakes are called that. Its the depth of the soil that matters most, licorice needs a sand filled trench six feet deep to make decent roots in . you can do this even with a heavy clay soil so long as you give it drainage, rather than turning it into a water course – I’ve experimented. You can grow it in a pot and get good flavoured but very thin roots
5. Greeting from Stillwater Oklahoma, far from my usual haunts, where almost nothing resembling food can be bought except at the small asian grocery store and the farmers market – excellent greenstuff from the latter. Had to hit three stores before I could even get a non-caged egg
Hello there in Oklahoma!
I also read that there was something to do with the ash in the soil too, and also about the rhubarb train that went to London, but I didn’t want to waffle too much.
I actually knew that it was Pontefract that grew the liquorice, but Pontefract is in Wakefield isn’t it? At last in the Borough of Wakefield…?
Well done for finding uncaged hens eggs. Remarkably, I found a free range goose eggs at my local farmers’ market. I shall be having it for breakfast!
I just checked. Pontefract is part of Wakefield. Though you made me doubt myself, even I used to live in Wakefield! [Though geography nevr was my strong point]
yes, but that’s only since they invented the Borough of Wakefield – ask the people in Pontefract if they live in Wakefield. I think you’d get a pretty dusty answer. All that messing around with boundaries really messes up our identities.
I certainly agree there, but Pontefract and Wakefield are close enough to have similar magical soils…
I like this 😀
And there are many kind of Food in England, what do u think about the famous one, what is the most famous food in England ????
just curious about you 😀
That is a tricky one… probably the most famous are fish and chips or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, neither of which I have written a post on yet… I’ll have to address that issue….
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Well, you learn something new every day! Thanks for all the rhubarb info… I had no idea you could force it that way. Crazy to imagine the sounds of fast-growing rhubarb… Seems to grow so fast in my garden anyway.
And thanks for your cobbler recipe. I’m always looking for new ideas to use up our abundant crop!
Thanks for the comments! I’ll hopoefully be adding more rhubarb recipes. I have a good one for a chuney that’s pretty good….
Ooh, that’d be perfect! I’ve been posting a string of rhubarb recipes, since the tips of my plants just poked out of the frozen earth here in New Hampshire last week, but haven’t laid hold of a chutney recipe lately…
Subscribing now! 🙂
you may have to wait for that particular one though, Carrie as the book is in a box in Manchester and I am in St Louis. I’ll do it as soon as I move back in the summer… thanks for following…