Modern, News, Stewarts, Victorian


Rhubarb, Rhubarb, Roobarb!

No, I’m not being rude, I am just reminding you of the love hate relationship we have with these long, crunchy pink sticks. It seems to have gone out of fashion a bit these days but when I was a child every garden had their rhubarb patch. My dad used to send me out with a bucket to shovel up horse manure after the milk float had gone by. He would say this was just to improve the flavour of the rhubarb! Before sweets came off ration children would be given a small stick of rhubarb dipped in sugar to suck. This would make your jaws ache. I doubt it did our teeth much good, but we loved it! We also had it stewed with custard or much better as a rhubarb crumble.

Being a southerner, I was quite intrigued to be moving up to Yorkshire near to the famous Rhubarb Triangle. So, a couple of years ago I was pleased to be invited to visit E Oldroyd and Sons, one of the last rhubarb producers in Yorkshire and be taken round by the ‘High Priestess of Rhubarb’ herself, Janet Oldroyd Hulme. Janet told us that the earliest recorded use of rhubarb is 2700BC, although its use is thought to date back much further than that.

The exciting bit came when Janet took us into one of her forcing sheds. The door was kept shaded as we walked into the darkness lit by three or four candles on the central pillars. It took somewhile for my eyes adjust to the darkness before I could make out the pink leaf fronds poking up from the root balls on the floor. We were told to be absolutely quiet, and I could just hear a small creaking, first one side of the shed then on the other. This was the growing rhubarb sprouting. Absolutely fascinating.

According to an article in the Morley Archives, a Yorkshireman, Sir Matthew Lister, introduced edible garden rhubarb into England from Italy around 1620. At first it was appreciated for its medicinal qualities and was used for a variety of ailments particularly gut, lung and liver problems. but from the 1780’s the chopped stalks began to be used as a substitute for gooseberries in pies. Sir Mathew was the royal physician to Ann, Queen of James I and Charles I (I wonder if he was an ancestor of Anne Lister – Gentleman Jack – of Shibden Hall).

The forcing process was discovered in Chelsea Physic Gardens in 1817, when some roots were accidentally covered with soil in the depth of winter. On removing the soil some weeks later tender shoots were noticed. From this point rhubarb was grown in the market gardens surrounding London.

Chelsea Physics Garden

Rhubarb forcing began in Yorkshire in the late 1870’s, when Joseph Whitwell erected forcing sheds, where it was grown in the dark, and after that the expansion of the rhubarb industry was very rapid. The Whitwell family of Leeds are generally regarded as the first large-scale grower to take on the London growers. The plants being a native of Siberia needed cold and the triangle formed a frost pocket behind the Pennines. The soil was suitable, there was plenty of water and that other secret ingredient, ‘Shoddy’, the woollen waste that broke down slowly to give the plants a high nitrogen feed. Then there was also a plentiful supply of cheap coal to heat the forcing sheds.

So where is this famous triangle everyone is talking about? Wikipedia says that it is now confined to a nine square mile area in West Yorkshire between Wakefield, Morley, and Rothwell although in the early 1900’s it covered a much larger area of about thirty square miles between Leeds, Bradford, and Wakefield. Special express trains were run by the Great Northern Railway between Christmas and Easter from Ardsley station taking sometimes two hundred tons up to Spitalfields and Convent Garden Markets.

If you don’t grow your own rhubarb, you might like to try, the RHS has some interesting advise. Or you might find some decent locally grown sticks on the market. Sainsburys and Morrisons sell it, but I only hope it’s not floppy. Sainsburys have a discussion on their website that is interesting, “is it a fruit or a vegetable?” But then again does it matter if you like it?

As children we were warned not to eat the poisonous leaves. This is due to oxalic acid that can cause difficulty in breathing, nausea, kidney stones and eventual kidney failure. But don’t panic, you would need to eat several pounds of rhubarb leaves to reach a toxic level. Poirot would hardly class it as a poison of choice.

Although the spelling is a bit suspect, children will like the cartoon series, Roobarb and Custard created by Grange Calveley and originally shown on BBC1 first shown on 21 October 1974 and narrated by Richard Briers. Roobarb is a green dog that is fond of bones, adventure, and inventing. While Custard a somewhat fat, yellow cat, often a rival, sometimes a friend who live next door.

I have also visited the National Rhubarb Collection at the National trust, Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire. Although their rhubarb is not forced it is fascinating to walk round the walled garden to see all the different heritage varieties. Talking to one of the gardeners he told me they had 130 different varieties, but they could not claim this to be the largest in the world as a grower in Holland had even more! My visit was just after the notorious ‘Beast from the East’ which had apparently killed off a number of the Dutch plants. Who knows, maybe Clumber Park now have the World’s largest collection!

It is quite easy to visit E Oldroyd and Sons Rhubarb farm which is not far from the M1 at Rothwell near Leeds or if you are batting south down the A1M why not stop off at Clumber Park near Worksop.
If I’ve whetted your appetite for delights of rhubarb have a look at the BBC Food pages where you will find recipes for everything from the favourites of Rhubarb Crumble and Rhubarb and Custard Tart through to Rhubarb Gin and Mackerel with Rhubarb Chutney.

Wakefield’s celebration of its most famous vegetable returns to paint the city pink from 17-19 February 2023. The Rhubarb Festival is one of the first food and drink festivals in the national calendar.
The event will feature a food and drink market with over 50 chalets where members of the public can sample and purchase local and regional delights: lively street entertainment and music, as well as a variety of workshops. There will also be a demo marquee which will house live chef demonstrations curated by Yorkshire Food Guide.
The festival will run from 10am – 5pm on Friday 17 & Saturday 18, and 10am – 4pm on Sunday 19 February 2023.

Maybe a date for your diary?