Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb
Each year in early January slim soft-pink through to ruby-red Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb stems begin to appear at market. A native of Siberia, there is evidence that rhubarb was grown for its medicinal properties – thought to be effective in gut, liver and lung problems - at least as far back as 2700BC. It was grown in the UK for around 150 years for use as a purgative before it became valued as a food in the early 18th century. Garden-grown rhubarb is a much more muscular proposition than ‘forced’ rhubarb. Its thicker, darker red/green stems need a little more cooking and extra sugar to make it palatable. But it was the accidental ‘blanching’ of rhubarb, caused by gardeners at the Chelsea Physic Garden piling up waste plants over winter, that led to the growing of ‘forced’ rhubarb. By the time the roots were uncovered, tender stems had pushed through towards the light and these were found to be far tastier than outdoor, uncovered rhubarb stems.
The method was embraced and developed into the use of ‘forcing’ sheds, after the roots have experienced a blast of frost first in the fields, to produce an earlier, more delicate tasting crop. In Yorkshire, rhubarb farmers were able to produce such a good crop, and get it to market so efficiently, that growers in other areas of the country gave up trying to compete. Today forced rhubarb continues to be grown in a small area around Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield in Yorkshire known as "The Rhubarb Triangle". It’s labour-intensive work which means the crop commands a relatively high price. One of the oldest growers is E Oldroyd & Sons Ltd. Oldroyd's forced rhubarb still finds its way to London markets and to our shelves.
Rhubarb is valued for food from Russia through Turkey, Pakistan and the Middle East. Persian cooking values it for balancing meat stews, particularly lamb. A lightly sweetened compote is a good accompaniment to cut the fattiness of pork or oiliness of fish, like mackerel. For desserts, the tender stems can go into cakes and tarts. The most versatile way with forced rhubarb is to gently poach it to make a sweet compote - 5 parts fruit to 1 part sugar is about right if you don’t want it too sweet. Additions you can make when poaching include a vanilla pod; a little preserved ginger; orange zest and/or juice; or a single clove. Alternatively you could add a teaspoon or two of rosewater just before serving. Fold into lightly whipped cream, or a mix of cream and yogurt, to make a rhubarb fool. If you have some meringues and a little cream you have the makings of a take on Eton Mess. Rhubarb also makes a good cordial, though you’d be better waiting for the cheaper outdoor-grown variety for that.