You cannot get more quintessentially British than rhubarb. Technically a vegetable and believed to hail originally from the mountains of Mongolia rather than the UK, its beautiful pink stalks are slightly sweet and definitely sour.
Rhubarb is an extremely hardy plant. It is easy to grow and does so just about anywhere, from Siberia to Maine. It springs back again and again with minimal effort to the extent that it is actually considered a weed in certain places. Sounds great, right? Yes.... except that rhubarb grown this way is extremely sour and tough. Oh, and the leaves are actually toxic so not exactly something you would be raring to grow in your veg patch.
It wasn't until the 18th century that people cottoned on to the fact that a. rhubarb tastes pretty good when it's been sweetened and b. it grows really rather well in the stereotypically rainy and chilly British climate. And so it began to be grown in large quantities for culinary consumption. Industrious farmers realised that if you grow the plant in the dark, the stalks actually come out much sweeter and don't even need sugar to make them taste delicious. Normally glucose is used by the entire plant from roots to leaves during growth. However, by removing the plant's source of light, the leaves will become anaemic and stunted allowing all the sugars to remain in the stalks. The stems remain a delicate pink rather than turning green due to photosynthesis and have a much sweeter, more delicate and desirable flavour. And so began the tradition of growing rhubarb in the dark which is still alive today.
Producers began cultivating the rhubarb in dark, heated barns called forcing sheds, covering the stalks in manure. This was and is still done entirely by candlelight as even torchlight can interfere with the delicate forcing process. It is said that rhubarb produced in this way grows at such a swift pace that, if you're quiet and stand near, you can actually hear large groups of it growing (a thought which puts a huge smile on my face). The epicentre of all this horticultural wizardry can be found in the Rhubarb Triangle, a 9 square mile area of West Yorkshire near Wakefield which once supplied near enough the entire globe with forced rhubarb.
And the best thing? It's in season right now, which means that Spring is here and that we can indulge in some delicious Yorkshire rhubarb recipes immediately.
In an effort to celebrate the beauty of this special product, our girl on the ground in NYC, Noreen, created this recipe for simple poached rhubarb. Just a bit of sugar, lemon and vanilla- sweet, fragrant and delicious. Have it spooned over yoghurt or ice cream or as a topping for tea cake.
Vanilla poached rhubarb
250g forced rhubarb
35g caster sugar
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp vanilla bean paste
1/4 tsp salt
splash of water
- Trim the rhubarb stalks and cut into large 4 inch chunks.
- Add to a medium saucepan along with the rest of the ingredients.
- Bring to a quick boil over a medium-high heat and then immediately reduce to a low simmer.
- Poach for 8 to 10 minutes until tender.
- Store in a container in a fridge. The leftover syrup is great in cocktails!