A fool for rhubarb


Once again we have to thank the Victorians for discovering the culinary delights of rhubarb, as prior to the 19th century it was more likely to be found in a physic garden or apothecary’s shop than the vegetable garden. Extracts from Chinese rhubarb Rheum officinale  and Chingai or Turkey rhubarb Rheum palmatum have been used in Chinese medicine for over 3000 years although its use was not prevalent in western Europe until the 18th century.
The origins of garden rhubarb are obscure although botanically it is a a cross between R. palmatum and R. rhaponticum. Since it’s heyday in the mid-19th century,  when over 100 acres of culinary rhubarb was grown around London and special trains were run to take forced rhubarb from the Rhubarb Triangle in Yorkshire to Covent Garden,  its popularity has waned. Fortunately there has been a resurgence in interest and the forced rhubarb grown between Wakefield, Leeds and Bradford (the Rhubarb Triangle) was recently granted Protected Designation of Origin status by the EU. So this must be the ultimate accolade for a Eurasian weed prized by herbalists for its purgative properties.
As we can grow only a limited variety of fruit in our windy corner of the outer isles, rhubarb was top of the list of things to try, plus Himself is rather partial to rhubarb and ginger crumble. We transported 3 crowns, Champagne, Timperley Early and Glaskins Perpetual, from our old garden naively thinking that rhubarb could survive anything. They sulked, shivered in the wind and died. Not to be defeated we carefully prepared a rhubarb bed in our new fruit cage and set about caring for 6 new crowns. They didn’t even sulk they just refused to grow. In exasperation I bought a packet of seed – variety Victoria (syn. “Queen Victoria” introduced by Joseph Myatt of Deptford in 1837, later to be followed by Price Albert). I recently discovered that it is a “late” variety and is frequently grown from seed. It germinated and thrived and by the autumn we had some small crowns which were large enough to plant in the garden. So 20 plants went into the vegetable garden, the rest were over wintered in pots and planted this spring. Not surprisingly some of the autumn planting didn’t survive but we now have over 40 large rhubarb plants!
We were astonished by their vigour and they were growing so rapidly that we cautiously pulled a few stems and then a few more. Although it is advised not to harvest from first year crowns, if we had let them grow we would have been submerged in a rhubarb forest. In all we harvested well over 7o kilos – not all of which was consumed by us.
It is a remarkably versatile vegetable (well its not botanically a fruit) and in addition to a whole host of pudding (and posh deserts) it makes interesting cakes, chutneys, relishes, jams and sauces to accompany fish or pork. I’ve even seen recipes for rhubarb wine and flavoured vodka, and I really must try to find Liqueur de Rhubarbe  produced by Edmond Briottet in Dijon. I should  attach a recipe for rhubarb fool, but Cathy of ramblinginthegarden asked if I had a recipe for rhubarb cake, so always eager to please a recipe for for spelt rhubarb cake can be found in the Croft kitchen. My tasting panel gave this one the thumbs up on Sunday so I hope you enjoy it.


12 thoughts on “A fool for rhubarb

  1. We like rhubarb too, unfortunately our August weather is much too hot for it. I have read it can be grown as an annual if started from seed early enough. Your persistence has once again inspired me to give it a try next spring.

    • Hi Shirley, I’ve been thinking about your rhubarb dilemma. You might be able to get it going if you can find an “early” variety, something like ‘Timperley Early’ which in mild parts of the UK will produce stems in February/March. In theory you would get an early crop in the spring/summer when it’s not too warm and by August it will have finished and if it loses its leaves it won’t matter too much provided the crown could survive the heat. An interesting challenge or just more of my what if madness?

  2. You have a fascinating knowledge of the botanical history of rhubarb, Chris – another of the unexpected joys of blogging, adding all these snippets of information along the way! Thanks for the mention regarding the rhubarb cake recipe – I have commented separately on that. A neighbour has made rhubarb vodka (and I made damson vodka last year, for presents at Christmas) and I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard to devise a recipe for rhubarb liqueur … there’s a challenge for you!

    • I sometimes think that my blogs have a tendency to be nerdy at times. One of my kinder academic colleagues once described me as an intellectual butterfly, I think he meant lightweight. Among other things I am interested in ethnobotany and find the history of cultivated plants (edible and otherwise) fascinating.
      I’d not thought about a still, perhaps I’ll give the yoghurt making a go first and see how Himself progresses with a plan to build a smoker.

  3. I can never to get the stuff to grow well.

    • Considering that so many people tell me rhubarb is as tough as old boots it can be pernickety at times. It likes a rich soil but not too much nitrogen, so go easy on the manure, it likes some sunshine, it likes moisture but if it gets too wet the crown rots. You could try a different variety or move it to a new site, or give it 3 warnings and then if it doesn’t perform it has to be composted.

  4. Thank goodness for the Victorians – I love the stuff! I really enjoy the “nerdy” information so keep it coming 😉

    • I think it is time we all celebrated the great, and largely “unknown” Victorian and Edwardian market garners and nurserymen who gave us so many wonderful plant varieties. A heritage that we are in danger of squandering unless we grow the heritage and heirloom varieties alongside their modern progeny. I’ll put my soapbox away for the day and do penance for a mini-rant by going to dig the rest of the tatties!

  5. Mmmm…rhubarb. My mom used to stew it into kind of a sweet-tart slurry that we put over ice cream. Yum. When my family first came to the Pacific NW in 1903, they brought with them rhubarb crowns, maybe from North Dakota, maybe all the way back from when they arrived from Sweden in the 1880’s. My grandmother told me they were the first things they planted in the homestead kitchen garden. When she moved to Seattle as an adult in the twenties, she took cuttings from that rhubarb for her own garden. All of my cousins and now their children have rhubarb growing from cuttings from those plants. If I can move to an unrestricted property, I’ll take a cutting from my cousin and grow some too…then my wife and I will have to figure out how to stew rhubarb. A great sense-memory! Thank you!

    • This a wonderful story – a rhubarb heirloom no less. Could you perhaps grow some in a large plastic tub? It seems a pity to do without.

  6. Memories of baking rhubarb crisp in the spring and then rhubarb jam…yum!! Plus the huge red-veined leaves and later tall stalks and flowers add a real distinctive touch in the garden. Thanks for all the information!

    • Thank you for the reminder about rhubarb as an ornamental plant – it can add an air of the exotic to any garden.

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