On January 27th, the very first signs of rhubarb began to emerge from the garden. To have such beautiful deep red colours so early on in the year gives you the first hint that Spring is on the horizon.
Rhubarb is very much a vegetable, although it is often associated with some of our favourite puddings. It is incredibly hardy and grows through to early Spring. It’s relatively easy to cultivate in most fertile gardens so long as there is plenty of sunshine.
It can be grown from seeds, but it is much easier to grow from crowns or budded pieces, which can be planted from November. It needs a little bit of space, but the plants can last for up to ten years. Rhubarb can also be grown year-round in greenhouses, although we enjoy the early Spring seasonality.
Rhubarb is originally from China, with records dating back to 2700 BC suggesting that it was cultivated for medicinal purposes. Marco Polo is credited with bringing the vegetable to Europe in the 13th Century. It was later introduced to Britain in the 17th Century to be used as a medicine. It wasn’t used in cooking until the early 1800s.
The word rhubarb comes from the Latin word ‘hababarum’ which means ‘root of the barbarians’. The Romans labelled anyone who ate rhubarb ‘barbarians’ which makes it even more appealing for us Northumbrians.
Yorkshire is particularly famous for growing rhubarb, notably in the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’, an area where the climate and soils are ideal for growth.
A technique called ‘forcing rhubarb’ is practised extensively throughout Yorkshire, and is also possible in our garden. This involves limiting light to help the rhubarbs to grow. Tender and pink stalks are produced by covering them with straw or bracken, then with a bucket or special clay pot. In Yorkshire, this is often completed on a larger scale and traditionally uses candlelight as part of the process.
When picking rhubarb, the deeper the red, the sweeter the taste. Be sure only to use the stalks as the leaves are poisonous, and they are full of oxalic acid, which is not good for us.