The Rhubarb season is upon us and I for one rejoice to eat the first fruit or vegetable of the season.
I love Rhubarb it takes me back to my childhood of pink Rhubarb pies and tart crumbles, yum. As a vegetable or a fruit and there is quite a debate on that topic, it’s been seriously out of fashion for a number of years, but has recently enjoyed a resurgence with trendy TV cooks reintroducing it to the nation’s palates. In fact Rhubarb can be hard to get hold of, when researching this post I found that Tesco supermarket were offering none for sale and Ocado the Waitrose’s online brand were offering Rhubarb at a whooping £7.50 a kilo no wonder they are keen to sell it!
I don’t think my Mum was paying the equivalent of £7.50 a kilo back in the day, the truth was that we had loads of rhubarb because as any rhubarb grower knows if you have a plant you have a glut, so any friends with a garden or an allotment would drop some off.
Rhubarb has a long history even it’s name is of note, Rhu refers to the river Rha the Roman name for the Volga right on the eastern edge of the Roman empire where wild Rhubarb grows on the banks. Barb refers to the barbarians on the edge of the empire, therefore ‘the plant of the barbarians’.
References to Rhubarb as a medicine go back thousands of years in Chinese history, where it was taken as a laxative amongst other uses. Rhubarb was imported along the silk road in the 14th century and was on par with silks and jewels. A Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo’s report of his embassy in 1403-05 to Timur in Samarkand: “The best of all merchandise coming to Samarkand was from China: especially silks, satins, musk, rubies, diamonds, pearls, and rhubarb…”
£50 worth of Rhubarb!
Rhubarb became popular in the 17th Century when sugar became affordable and consumption reached it’d peak between the wars. A relic of these times hangs on in the famous Yorkshire triangle of Wakefield, Leeds, and Morley, all flat caps and whippets where forced rhubarb is harvested by candlelight in huge forcing sheds. I force my rhubarb but I don’t have a forcing shed or a whippet but I do have several rather fetching flat caps, I just use an old inverted black water butt. I picked the first crop this weekend, hence this post. As you can see from the photo at Ocado’s prices I picked about £50 worth!
The one problem with Rhubarb is getting young people to eat it, in a corn syrup world they find even the taste of even the sweeter pink stalks too tart. At best I get a begrudging push around the plate until they decide that they are full and they raid the fridge for a proper pudding after a semi-respectable pause.
In fact rhubarb is so part of UK culture the very wonderful Eric Sykes filmed Rhubarb, a short film in which the only word spoken was rhubarb. Then he remade it years later as Rhubarb Rhubarb, here’s a link to the film here. Enjoy.
If that is not enough there was the 1970′s tea time joy of Roobarb and Custard one of the best children’s programmes ever made a youtube link to an episode is here. Enjoy again.
As this is a food blog I should write about the culinary uses of rhubarb and if I can get organised I will write some follow up posts on this theme. To start off we can remember that the simplest way of eating rhubarb is to dip tender young shoots in sugar something commonly given to children over the years. Some people believe you shouldn’t do this because rhubarb is poisonous uncooked because it contains Oxalic acid which is destroyed when cooked. This is correct but you would need to eat over 5 kilo’s of uncooked rhubarb at a sitting to cause any harm which is an unlikely event.
Here’s a simple and slightly unusual recipe for Rhubarb Schnapps
- 1 Kilo Rhubarb cut into 2/3 cm lengths
- 300 grams sugar
- 1 bottle of vodka (as cheap as you like)
Put all the ingredients into an old sweet jar or similar and stir daily until the sugar is dissolved. Ready to drink after 4 weeks. You can serve your Schnapps straight from the jar or decant into a bottle. It has a lovely colour and is delicious served chilled.
I am thinking about popping in some Orange peel in my next batch as orange and Rhubarb are good partners, I’ll give it a go, I’ve got loads of Rhubarb!