We finally got round to harvesting some of our rhubarb, a vegetable masquerading as a fruit, a couple of weeks ago. We have quite a lot ready for picking this year…
Rhubarb contains a good amount of fibre, hence why it was used in ancient Chinese medicine for soothing stomach ailments and constipation. 122g of rhubarb provides 45% of your daily amount of vitamin K, which supports healthy bone growth and limits neuronal damage in the brain. It contains vitamin C, A (the red stalks provide more of this than the green ones, good for vision, protection against cancers, good skin and mucus membranes), B vitamins, as well as other nutritional benefits such as iron, potassium, phosphorous, manganese and folate. A serving of cooked rhubarb provides us with as much calcium as a cup of milk would and is on the short list alongside salmon and spinach for food that provides us with the most calcium.
Rhubarb was a native of Siberia, found growing on the banks of the river Volga. The earliest recordings of rhubarb date back to 2700BC in China although it is believed that it was used as a drug even before this date. The plant was cultivated for medicinal purposes, particularly as an ailment for gut, liver and lung conditions. Marco Polo is attributed with bringing rhubarb, or ‘Rhacoma’ root, as a drug to Europe during the thirteenth century. The plant was so popular that in England during 1657, its asking price was three times that of Opium. The rise of modern medicine after the sixteenth century and the failure of the British trying to introduce the wrong strain of rhubarb to use as a drug replaced the root’s use for healing.
The first recorded planting of rhubarb in Europe was in Italy in 1608. It was not until 1778 that the plant was recorded as being grown for food in Europe. It was not until the Chelsea Physics Garden discovered forcing rhubarb in 1817, when some roots were accidentally covered with soil during the winter, that the vegetable became a British favourite. When the gardeners removed the soil, they discovered some tender shoots growing. These were found to have a superior taste, gaining favour with the public as commercial growers began to adopt the technique. The earliest cooking method of eating rhubarb was in tarts and pies.
The forcing of rhubarb began in 1877 in Yorkshire, where the famous Yorkshire Rhubarb of course sprouts from. The Whitwell family are acknowledged as being the first family to produce enough rhubarb to out-sell the London markets. Special sheds were built for growing rhubarb in, prolonging the season. Yorkshire is an ideal place for growing rhubarb as it possesses the ideal requirements for growing the crop: cold, wet and a good deal of nitrogen in the soil. The quality of the Yorkshire crop became renowned and other markets could no longer compete and ceased altogether. The production of rhubarb centralised between Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford, becoming ‘The Rhubarb Triangle’, the centre for the world’s production of forced rhubarb.
During the Second World War, rhubarb became diet staple as the government charged a shilling per pound of Yorkshire rhubarb to keep it financially available. The rhubarb industry became one of the largest providers of employment during these years. Despite this, sugar was difficult to get hold of and the sharp taste of rhubarb needs to be softened by this particular ingredient. After being a nutritious part of the human diet during the 1940s, rhubarb’s popularity dropped due to the undesirable memories of war-time children who had to suffer the strong taste of rhubarb for too long. When the war was over and overseas refrigerators became available along with the chance to purchase and store exotic, tropical fruits, rhubarb was abandoned in the garden and the producers began to suffer huge losses, some going bankrupt, some selling their businesses.
Despite the decline, rhubarb is starting to raise itself up again. More and more chefs are advertising new recipes to include rhubarb in – one does not have to restrict themselves to using it in a crumble, although that can be one of the most yummy, traditional ways of using it, as long as you remove the fuzzy feeling you can get on your teeth by not sweetening it enough. All of my latest cookery finds have some ingenious ideas for using this beautiful pink and green vegetable masquerading as a fruit: cakes, fools, pies, tarts, steamed puddings, stewed on its own and served with another pudding like a cheesecake, soufflés, grunts, muffins, jams, jelly, yoghurt, ice cream, raw rhubarb sorbet… The list goes on.
We were given various rhubarb plants by friends last year so I do not know the names of all of them. However, I am pretty sure we have bought ourselves ‘Champagne’, ‘Victoria’ (fruits later) and ‘Timperley Early’ (produces earlier than most varieties and does have a fairly high chilling requirement so it is suitable for cold areas).
You can buy young crowns of rhubarb or established ones. When buying young crowns, allow the plant to establish for a year in the soil before harvesting from them. Rhubarb likes to be planted in rich, well-manured soil in the full sun and water through dry periods. Allow 90cm between plants.
Forcing rhubarb: In Yorkshire, the plants are grown in a field for two years before being brought indoors each winter after a cold period to induce dormancy. The warm sheds encourage the plants to awaken but light is excluded, making the plant resort to its own glucose reserves in its base to feed the early growth of the new stalks. Without the light, the rhubarb grows a livid pink colour and is more sweeter and succulent than the versions not forced. It is romantically harvested by candlelight as strong light halts growth. We can replicate Yorkshire’s forcing techniques simply at home. Place a rhubarb forcer or, in our case, a large bucket over the small crowns in late winter after piling fresh manure around it (this raises the temperature and the speed of growth). Forcing rhubarb will give you hopefully a harvest four or five weeks ahead of the main harvest time.
Depending on the variety of the plant and the weather, one can start harvesting rhubarb in March until the end of July. You need to stop picking as the plant growth slows down to allow it to store reserves of energy for growth the following year. Choose tender stalks. These are stems with good colour, where the leaves have just unfolded fully. Do not cut the stems. Instead, grasp the chosen stem low on the plant, give a sharp pull and twist in order to remove it cleanly. Rip the leaves off and discard into the compost heap – don’t give them to the animals as they are poisonous, despite what my pigs might say after breaking out and rampaging the neighbour’s crops of rhubarb and our own, they love it!
As far as pests and diseases go, there are not too many threats for this vegetable. If you notice limp foliage, weak steams nad new buds dying during the growing season your plant could have fungal disease, crown rot. You just have to be brave and discard the plant and purchase new crowns for planting.
If flowers appear on your plants (they did on a couple of ours last year), cut them off as they reduce the vigour of the part of the rhubarb you want to eat. In the autumnal months, remove the withering leaves and add well-rotted manure and mulch to encourage them for the next season.
So now I can finally offer you pudding recipes. I love puddings, especially homemade ones. I eat one after supper without fail every night for ultimate comfort and although it is often a cake, or something covered in chocolate, that I have made, I do love a good fruity pudding and I have recently purchased the ‘Puddings’ cookbook by Johnny Shepherd. He is obviously a fan of rhubarb and includes a fair number of interesting recipes involving it. Instead of launching straight into crumbles or rhubarb cakes, I played around with his recipe for rhubarb fool first of all before going for the crumble. I have had the best rhubarb crumbles at school. I was never too keen on the dishes they served but their chocolate sponge and custard (of course), jam roly poly, macaroni cheese, baked potatoes, apple crumble and, finally, rhubarb crumble with custard were all delicious. The thing I never liked about rhubarb crumble was the fuzzy texture you get on your teeth after eating it. There is little you can do about this other than to use a good amount of sugar, to cook it well or to peel off the outsides and to serve it with something like custard to combat the texture. When making the crumble this year, I decided to try roasting it first of all using Shepherd’s technique to see if this would help. It did reduce it quite a lot and it was delicious and went down a treat with the family.
By the way, we just picked some strawberries and ate them with homemade chocolate cake with some pouring yoghurt last night – delicious! I am going through a real strawberry phase at the moment. My favourite breakfast is strawberry and rhubarb yoghurt and if I get enough strawberries (those pesky birds ate most of them last year), then I would love to try making strawberry and rhubarb conserve, just to try. They making a surprisingly delicious match.
Here is my adaption of Johnny Shepherd’s fool recipe and my rhubarb crumble. I never took an photographs of my fool as it tasted amazing and looked revolting so I have included his photo instead to inspire rather than put you off. The crumble is my own though.
Rhubarb and Cardamom Fool
For the rhubarb: – 500g rhubarb, washed and cut into 5cm batons – 175g caster or granulated sugar – 10 cardamom pods, cracked
For the custard: – 315ml double cream – 3-4 large egg yolks – 48g caster sugar
– 300ml double cream
- Preheat the oven to 160C. On a non-stick baking tray, lay out the rhubarb and cardamom seeds, sprinkling 75g of the sugar over the top. Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes or until the rhubarb is soft and tender.
- Meanwhile, make the custard: Put the cream into a non-stick saucepan over a medium flame and bring to the boil. Take the pan off the heat.
- Whisk the egg yolks and the sugar together in a bowl. Pour the hot cream over the top, whisking all the time. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and place over a medium flame, whisking, until the custard is thick and coats the back of a spoon. Leave the pan to cool slightly before putting it in the fridge to chill completely.
- Return to the baked rhubarb once it is done in the oven. Pour the excess liquid from the tray through a sieve into a saucepan. Discard the cardamom pods. Heat the saucepan of liquid on the stove over a high flame to reduce it to a thick syrup. Remove from the heat and stir in the rhubarb along with the remaining 100g of sugar. Place to one side and allow to cool before keeping it in the fridge until fully chilled.
- In a large bowl, whisk the 300ml of double cream to soft peaks.
- Once you are ready to serve, remove the custard and the rhubarb from the fridge and combine. Carefully fold the cream into the rhubarb and custard to create a rippled effect. Serve in bowls.
For the Topping: – 170g plain flour – 110g salted butter (or unsalted with a good pinch of salt) – 55g caster sugar
For the fruit: – 400-500g rhubarb, washed and cut into small strips, about 5cm long – About 75g caster or granulated sugar – 100g caster or granulated sugar
- Preheat the oven to 160C. On a baking tray, spread the cut rhubarb out and sprinkle 75g of sugar over the top generously. Put the tray in the oven and bake for about 15 minutes until the rhubarb is just starting to become tender. Remove the tray from the oven and put it to one side. Turn the oven up to 180C.
- Pour the juice of the rhubarb into a small saucepan. Place over a medium heat and allow it to bubble until it has turned into a thick syrup. Turn down the heat to simmer and stir in 100g sugar and the rhubarb. Remove from heat.
- Prepare the topping: In a large bowl, mix the flour, butter and sugar with your fingertips until it has a breadcrumb consistency. If the mixture is too dry, add a little more butter and a dash of sugar. Likewise, if it is too wet, add a little more flour and sugar to the mixture.
- Scrape the rhubarb into a oven-proof dish. Scatter the crumble topping over the fruit, spreading it evenly and thickly.
- Bake the crumble in the oven for about 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling. Serve warm with custard.