Thursday, 22 September 2011

Rhubarb (22 SEP 2011)

I remember as a child ladling custard onto stewed rhubarb to try to neutralise its sourness, resulting in a bowlful of custard with quite an unappetising colour; as I grew older I began to appreciate its tart flavour. Rhubarb is an acquired taste enjoyed in the West, mainly stewed with sugar as a pie or crumble filling or stirred into whipped cream to make rhubarb fool. A different type of rhubarb (rheum palmatum) is grown in the East, valued more for the medicinal properties of its roots. There are also ornamental rhubarbs which are not edible. The leaves of all rhubarbs are poisonous containing oxalic acid and other toxins, the stalks do too but to a much lesser degree.

In spring I bought Red Canada Rhubarb roots in a small packet and planted them at the front of the "woodland" in dappled shade. I assumed that the plant would take a few years to mature, but less than six months later what looks like ready-to-eat rhubarb has emerged and the plant has potentially paid for itself.

So far I haven't harvested any of the stalks, because I was waiting for them to turn red along their entire length like the picture on the packet. However, as time passes the stalks are withering not reddening. You're supposed to feed rhubarb with a good dose of well-rotted manure; this year it went without. I was beginning to wonder if I should have made the effort to drag a sack of manure to and through the house. Checking what was available at the DIY store, the only option was processed manure from dairy cattle which contains hormones & antibiotics, I guess. It may seem strange that I drink cow's milk without a thought, but I'm not prepared to fork dairy manure into my soil until I've researched it properly first.

all rhubarb leaves are poisonous
not-so-red    Red Canada Rhubarb

That's not the only reason why I haven't harvested, I have a romantic idea of forcing rhubarb as practised in dark sheds in the north of England. The rhubarbs are grown outside to store energy, then taken to the sheds. As they search for light, they rely on starches from their roots rather than photosynthesis to grow, which results in a sweeter vegetable with a sherbert-pink colour.  Traditionally, rhubarb is forced by candle-light, but even in a romantic state of mind I realise that this would be a fire hazard, so I'm hoping that an unwashed window at the side of my garden shed will allow in just enough light to direct the rhubarb to reach upwards. The disadvantage with this method is that once the rhubarb has been forced, the roots are spent and are thrown away. Therefore, I'll divide the plant and keep half growing outside for next year.

So what would I do with an annual supply of sherbet-pink, sweetened-by-darkness rhubarb stalks? ... 
I would cut them into big chunks, bake with sugar, then layer them with cooled custard and crushed ginger biscuits; that nostalgic rhubarb and custard combination, with less custard and a slightly more elegant presentation.


Xanthe Clay explains how rhubarb is forced (grown in dark sheds) in the Rhubarb Triangle, West Yorkshire, UK ...

... and here is a magical video of a farm in the Rhubarb Triangle.

In February 2010, Forced Yorkshire Rhubarb was added to the EU's list of foods with protected designation of origin which includes Cornish Clotted Cream, Stilton Cheese & Jersey Royal Potatoes. Shortly after, shops in the UK ran out of rhubarb supplies when Delia Smith (doyenne of British home-cooking) demonstrated this recipe on a TV advert :

Dan Eisenreich attempted to compile all the information about rhubarb that he could find on the internet. He explains that medicinal rhubarb grown in China (rheum palmatum) has roots with purgative properties.
Garden rhubarbs grown for culinary use outside China are probably less potent hybrids of rheum rhabarbarum. Here are some varieties  :

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HolleyGarden said...

How interesting! I don't grow rhubarb - I have never acquired a taste for it - but I love the look of its red stems against its green leaves. I had never heard of candle-light forcing. The things people knew about plants and how to get the best from them is amazing. And I, too, drink milk without thinking but would not want that in my garden! Go figure!

Anonymous said...

Your way of preparing them sounds really good, but like you mentioned, have only had it in pies. I never grew it either, but have seen it grown on the farm. Such a pretty plant growing. You did some nice research too with all the links. There really is a lot of varieties of Rhubarb too in that last link.

Stacy said...

What a lovely video--like a lullaby. I'd heard about the Rhubarb Triangle but had no idea how the process worked. Absolutely fascinating and yes, very romantic, but I'm with you on the unwashed shed window. Does the forcing really make a huge difference in the taste?

Your recipe plans sound delicious. I tried a no-cook rhubarb compote this year with balsamic vinegar, sugar and ginger that you let macerate for a few hours. It turned out to be really tasty (to my surprise).

One said...

I have taken rhubarb yogurt before and had imagined red fruits. I scrolled up and then down your post looking for red fruits. Goodness! Now I know.

Funny that you should mention antibiotics in animals. It is funny because of the way you put it and it is also something that is bothering me.

b-a-g said...

Thanks Holley - I tried to find out how the method of forcing rhubarb was discovered. One story is that a load of manure got dumped onto a rhubarb plant growing in a stable.

Thanks Donna - Culinary rhubarb is a great plant for a back garden because it's beautiful and delicious.

Thanks Stacy - I watched that video again and again, first to see the rhubarb, then to listen to the farmer. I love the idea that his family has been growing rhubarb for three generations.
Forced rhubarb is more delicate, with a less fibrous texture - that's the main difference. It's sweeter, but you still need to add sugar.
I'm not brave enough to eat rhubarb uncooked, I'm guessing that cooking reduces the amount of oxalic acid.

b-a-g said...

One - When I was young, doctors prescribed antibiotics freely, even if you just had a cold. Now we know that antibiotics can be detrimental if taken regularly because they eliminate good as well as bad bacteria. I don't know how often cows are fed antibiotics, I need to research it.

Alistair said...

Rhubarb crumble and custard, lovely. Don't know much about growing it other than my grandmother always told us that it was only the young shoots that were good.

linniew said...

b-a-g this is one of the most enlightening posts I have read in ages. I've grown and eaten rhubarb for years--in pies. Sometimes I make the pie with custard in it: that custard/rhubarb mix again. In recent years though I've added strawberries, or strawberry jam, and I think I like that as well or better than the custard. Perhaps the custard one needs a ginger crust... But growing rhubarb in the dark! I read the entire piece you linked to-- love the candle harvest. But I have always liked garden rhubarb. (Mine has stems that do tend to red.) You must post about the outcome of your night-growing, and don't forget the candles!

Helen/patientgardener said...

I planted rhubarb on my new allotment this year and was told by many not to harvest in the first year as the plant needs to use its energy putting roots down. The other advice I have come across repeatedly is that if you force rhubarb you have to leave it to rest for the following year. Just saying - enjoy your crumble

b-a-g said...

Alistair - It's a compromise between picking small servings of young, tender stems or bigger servings of older, stringy stems.

Thanks Linnie - Never heard of rhubarb/strawberry jam combo - I'm going to try it. I'll keep you posted on the rhubarb forcing, I'm waiting for all the leaves to die (after doing their job of providing food to the roots) before transferring it to the garden shed.

Thanks Helen - That's good news. I didn't like the idea of throwing away the rhubarb roots after forcing.

Carolyn @ Carolyn's Shade Gardens said...

I love rhubarb but mine always seems to get away from me in the spring. I haven't harvested it in years, but the plant is beautiful.

Indie said...

Yum! I wish rhubarb grew well here - I think it's too warm for it. Our favorite pie is Strawberry Rhubarb pie! It's always a great hunt to see if we can find any rhubarb during strawberry season here.

When I was little we lived in Alaska. My mom had a giant rhubarb plant, and I remember her grumbling about the moose coming and eating a big chunk out of it. I guess moose like rhubarb too!

b-a-g said...

Carolyn - Mine reached its prime in autumn, but I think that your spring rhubarb might be sweeter.

Welcome Indie - I'm surprised that the moose survived after chomping on the rhubarb, unless it instinctively avoided the leaves.

Janet/Plantaliscious said...

I love rhubarb, it is one of my favourite fruits, hence my delight at being given a clump up at the allotment! I'm already anticipating next year's harvest. I'd never heard of rheum palmatum before, interesting. Do they not eat the shoots because they don't like them, or because they don't taste anything like "our" rhubarb? If the former, reminds of of when people in this country grew potatoes for the flowers rather than to eat the tubers. Wonder who discovered mashed potato?

b-a-g said...

Janet - I still remember your rhubarb plant before it got sick. (It's actually a vegetable!)
Chinese rhubarb is very different, it grows over 6 foot tall. In European web-sites I've seen it labelled as ornamental, not edible. There don't seem to be any authentic Chinese recipes for any kind of rhubarb on the internet.
I don't know who invented mashed potato, but whoever discovered that adding a big slab of butter takes it to another level was a genius.

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