Rhubarb grows in two crops. The first, which arrives early in the year (normally late January), is forced, grown under pots, particularly in what’s known as the ‘rhubarb triangle’ around Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford. Its stalks are watermelon pink, with pale lime green leaves, and it is the more tender and delicately flavoured of the two.
The second, called ‘main crop’ rhubarb, is grown outdoors, and arrives in spring. Its stalks are a deeper red, tinged with green, and its leaves a brighter green. It has a more intense flavour and a more robust texture than forced.
The rhubarb that many people grow in their gardens today originated over 5,000 years ago in China. It was carried along the Silk Road by traders and the expense of transporting it meant that it was several times the price of other valuable herbs and spices, such as opium and saffron.
Eating the stalks as we do now is only a recent innovation that started around the 1700s. As people began to afford sugar, this allowed them to offset the sharpness of the stem. The leaves of the plant are toxic and contain a number of substances including oxalic acid, although you would have to eat at least five kilos of the extremely sour leaves to reach the levels of a lethal dose. In the UK, the first rhubarb of the year is harvested by candlelight in dark sheds dotted around the noted Rhubarb Triangle of Wakefield, Leeds and Bradford. The practice of forcing was discovered by accident in Chelsea Physic Gardens, after some roots were accidentally covered with soil in winter. When the soil was removed some weeks later the tender shoots were found to have a superior flavour and quality to anything seen before.
The first UK grown rhubarb was harvested in 1877 and was originally sent to local markets, but it wasn’t long before special trains laden with tons of rhubarb were leaving Wakefield for the Old Covent Garden Market in London.
Although this heyday may be long past rhubarb growing is still flourishing and the introduction of an annual Rhubarb Festival in February recognises its heritage in the area around Wakefield.
Why not try our latest rhubarb recipe, Rhubarb and Custard Brulee?