It’s cold, even by normal Yorkshire standards. Snow is on the ground and for several days temperatures hover around 0C, to which phone apps add comments such as ‘feels like -5C, which aren’t terribly helpful. Weather like this means a couple of things. The first is quite obvious, yes, it’s winter in Yorkshire, fortunately we have a strong Viking ancestry, which doubtless helps us to brave these Artic conditions; the other is that rhubarb season is upon us and that, for most of us at least brings about a small amount of cheer. Not only is this region known for the rhubarb now appearing in our farm shops, but Yorkshire is the officially the most famous destination for the production of the finest forced rhubarb, globally. What Sunday dinner, following a bracing walk in the countryside, can’t be improved by a homemade rhubarb crumble with custard?
But what is Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb? It is the traditional method of rhubarb production whereby roots are grown in fields for two years, then replanted in sheds, keeping them in dark, moist conditions for ten weeks. The lack of light draws energy from the plants’ roots, resulting in quick growth (they say you can hear it grow!) and thus producing in sweet, delicate pink rhubarb.
Why Yorkshire, I hear you ask? Rhubarb is actually native to Siberia and yet grows particularly well in the Rhubarb Triangle, an area enclosed between the towns of Rothwell, Lofthouse and Wakefield and which seemingly has cold and wet climatic conditions comparable with the Banks of the Volga. Our cold winters proving good for something. In fact it grows so well here that for decades, up until a train strike in 1962 put an end to it, there used to be an express train, operated by Great North Eastern Railways, which ran from Ardsley to London specifically to take Yorkshire’s finest forced Rhubarb down to London. It then made its way to Spitalfields and Covent Garden Markets from where it was sent on to grace the finest tables in London and Paris. In its heyday this train, affectionately known as The Rhubarb Express could carry up to 200 tons of rhubarb.
Despite this early fame and fortune, between 1970 and 2010 the future of rhubarb grown in this region was in doubt. If my childhood memories of my grandfather, slurping stringy, stewed rhubarb out of a bowl are anything to go by, I am not surprised. However, it was the amount of exotic fruits that had entered the local market, post the second world war, which meant that the desire for rhubarb was on the decline. This coupled with growers in Holland imitating the forcing method, meant that the numbers of growers remaining in Yorkshire’s ‘rhubarb triangle’ had shrunk to just 12.
Something had to be done about this and so Janet Oldroyd-Hulme, of the Yorkshire Rhubarb Growers’ Association, applied for the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) by the European Commission’s Protected Food Name scheme which covers products that are “produced, processed and prepared” in a specific area, using a particular, usually traditional, method’. Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb was granted its PDO in 2010, giving it the same status as Stilton Cheese, Melton Mowbray Pork Pies, Parma Ham and………Champagne.
It worked! Since then there has been no stopping the proud folks of Yorkshire who, over the last decade have taken rhubarb to a whole new level. Statues were erected, the annual rhubarb festival which had started in Wakefield in 2006 went from strength to strength and had grown to feature not only an array of food stalls, but live music and comedy too, and in 2016, photographer Michael Parr held an exhibition at The Hepworth Gallery depicting the life of rhubarb and it’s workers. There’s even been talk of a rhubarb tourist trail. In terms of recipes, well, there’s rhubarb jam, rhubarb and ginger jam, rhubarb chutney, rhubarb creme brulee, cheesecakes with charred rhubarb compote, wine-poached rhubarb, rhubarb and custard cake and of course, rhubarb ketchup, Rhucello (A rhubarb liquor) and of course, rhubarb gin! In fact, I think that the only thing more prolific than rhubarb recipes is the numbers of distilleries in Yorkshire now producing gin, some of it rhubarb, and which to be fair, have been a godsend during lockdown.
This pride and inventiveness, even if some of it is somewhat tongue in cheek, is one of the things that makes Yorkshire what it is. Why eat rhubarb when you can drink it? And, why come to Yorkshire and visit The Bronte Parsonage or the Dales, or even the charming market town of Harrogate, when you can embark on a Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb tourist trail? Lockdown means I am still to try this trail, though I am way ahead in the rhubarb gin drinking stakes, and I can’t help wondering if it involves a traipse around muddy fields and candle lit forcing sheds? However, for now it remains a mystery and until such delights reopen, here’s five extra little-known facts about rhubarb.
- The word rhubarb comes from the Latin word “rhababarum” which means “root of the barbarians.”
- Rhubarb is actually a vegetable, though as its taste can be described most politely as astringent, it is often, treated like a fruit and cooked down with a ton of sugar to make pies and crumbles.
- Rhubarb can reach 6 to 10 feet in height.
- The roots were used in ancient Chinese medicine and were believed to aid in digestion.
- January 23rd is National Rhubarb Pie Day.