Dear Readers, rhubarb is something of a travelling plant in our family. I remember a patch of it growing in the two allotments that we had when I was a child, and I strongly suspect that it was the same plant, dug up and transplanted. And now that Mum and Dad live in their Dorset bungalow there is a clump of the plant growing next to the greenhouse. How handsome it is, with its crinkly green leaves that look in need of a good iron, and those lip-puckering stalks, so unpromising raw, so delicious when combined with some sugar and topped with crumble. However, rhubarb is truly a divisive, love-it-or-hate-it plant. I find that people who love it often also favour other strong, uncompromising flavours, such as gooseberries,mackerel, blackcurrants and offal. It is a most assertive ingredient, and needs to be treated with the utmost respect by the cook.
In the first months of a new year there is forced rhubarb, with its yellow leaves and delicate rose-pink stems. In the UK this is grown in sheds in the ‘rhubarb triangle’ (between Wakefield, Leeds and Morley) and is picked by candlelight, in a tradition dating back to the 1800’s. The plants are grown outside for two years (and therefore exposed to frost, which is said to improve the flavour) and are then moved to low, heated sheds – the plants used to be fertilised with manure, night-soil and ‘shoddy’, a by-product of the wool industry. At one time, West Yorkshire produced 90% of all the forced rhubarb in the world, Such was the demand that the ‘Rhubarb Express’ brought up to 200 tonnes of rhubarb to the south every day before 1939. Alas, the post-war availability of more exotic fruits impacted on the rhubarb trade, and today the early rhubarb is an expensive luxury – beautiful, delicate, and, to my mind, more insipid than the robust late-spring outdoor-grown plant. But what a treat it must have been before everything was available all the time! We have lost something, I feel, with our strawberries in December and our asparagus in October and our oranges all year round.
But the ‘real’ stuff comes later in the year, with green and red-tinged stems and with a tannic taste that can twist the face into some most amusing shapes. It cooks in seconds, and the stems collapse into mush at the slightest provocation, so if presentation is a concern, keep your eye on your rhubarb. Usually, though, the fruit is covered with a pie crust, or sponge, or the aforementioned crumble, and so appearance is not a major concern. I have been seeing some recipes which use young rhubarb raw in salads, and very pretty they look too.
Those crinkly leaves are poisonous, containing oxalic acid which is a corrosive ingredient that acts particularly on the kidneys. It is estimated that 5 kgs of rhubarb leaves would have to be ingested to run the risk of dying from rhubarb poisoning, but there is also a school of thought that suggests that using bicarbonate of soda in the cooking water ( a common technique for keeping the bright colour of leafy greens) accentuates the toxin. There is also a long-standing belief amongst scientists that there is another, unidentified toxin in the rhubarb leaves. During the First World War there were said to be a few cases of accidental poisoning when people harvested and cooked the leaves, but it seems to be hard to find hard evidence for such cases.
What is much better documented is the long history of rhubarb being used as a laxative – the Chinese have used it for this purpose for millenia, as did the medieval peoples of Western Europe and the Middle East. Along with senna pods rhubarb was one of the ‘comedy ingredients’ of my childhood – it would be clear that anyone eating rhubarb without the traditional sweet accoutrements was constipated. A good old purge was often thought to sort everything out, and rhubarb was just the stuff to do it.
Rhubarb feels as English as, well, rhubarb pie, but in fact it originated far further east, probably in China, and arrived in Europe in the 14th Century via the Silk Route. It was initially prized for its aforementioned medicinal properties, and was extremely valuable, more expensive than cinnamon, saffron or even opium. Have a look at this list of treasures from the East, written in 1403 by the Castilian ambassador to the court of Timur the Great (Tamburlaine) in Samarkand:
‘…The best of all merchandise coming to Samarkand was from China: especially silks, satins, musk, rubies, diamonds, pearls, and rhubarb…’
But of course this is a most adaptable plant, and it took to the soils of Europe with much enthusiasm. Soon every peasant had a rhubarb plant of his or her own, and the ingredient was being used in every kitchen.
Rhubarb isn’t technically a fruit, as the stems are used rather than the fruiting bodies (just as a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable). I doubt that that has dampened anyone’s enthusiasm, however. Part of the joy of harvesting a (small amount) of rhubarb is that you head out with your machete, cut off the stems while imaging that there’s a leopard in the undergrowth waiting to pounce on you (or maybe that’s just me) and return to the house with your booty. None of that time-consuming picking! Rhubarb is definitely an ingredient for the ‘I want it now’ generation. You can have a pot full of rhubarb compote in less than twenty minutes from opening the back door.
Incidentally, I have never seen a rhubarb plant in flower, but this is what it looks like. Rhubarb is a member of the Polygonaceae, which includes buckwheat, the various persicarias, sorrel and Japanese knotweed. If you look closely at the white florets, they look rather like buckwheat.
It’s believed that a slice of rhubarb placed into the hole where you plan to plant a cabbage or other brassica will prevent club-root, and a piece of rhubarb worn around the neck was said to prevent stomach cramps. And in my research for this article, I found a most delightful website called ‘The Rhubarb Compendium‘, which includes the following delights:
- Rhubarb is great for bringing back the shine to burnt pots and pans. I must remember this time next time I forget about my rhubarb compote and boil it dry.
- 3 tbsp of rhubarb root boiled in two cups of water can brighten the colour of blond hair (though I’d test it first. Pink hair is so last century, darling)
- The leaves can be used as an insecticide (all that oxalic acid, I’m guessing) – boil up in water, allow to cool, spray, watch all the aphids retreat screaming, clutching their babies under their arms (not that I’m trying to make anyone feel guilty of course).
But now we come to a most puzzling question. Why is the phrase ‘rhubarb, rhubarb’ used to simulate the sound of background chatting in plays and films? Allegedly it’s because the word contains no particularly obvious phonemes, and so if a lot of people are repeating it, in different tones and with different stresses, it sounds a lot like your usual background babble. Other phrases might include ‘watermelon’ and ‘peas and carrots’. Apparently, however, these days what is more often used is something called ‘pocket dialogue’ – a few uncompleted sentences relating to the matter at hand for the extras to say, to simulate the sound of conversation. What a shame. I rather liked the idea of everyone saying rhubarb. Though maybe it stimulated the appetite for a coffee break.
And here, finally, is a rather fine poem about rhubarb, and about lots of other things too….
The poison lives only in the leaves,
thick with instant bitterness to warn you,
and my Polish grandmother said
this was to kill off the lazy ones, the stupid ones,
the ones who wanted things handed to them,
who couldn’t find it in themselves to dig.
And planting it told everyone
you didn’t mind dirt under your nails,
that you knew life was hard work if you did it right.
So she grew more than the whole family could eat.
By May, her narrow terraced backyard
in the city’s First Ward was a lapping sea
of palm-sized leaves; by June, a solid ruff of green,
a pruning knife’s hooked blade biting
through the stalks with a flick of her wrist
and a quick snap.
The one time I tried this I sliced deep
into my thumb knuckle at first swipe.
We were both red inside,
me, the rhubarb.
That’s the stuff I didn’t really think about at ten,
how everything bleeds;
how everything must die somehow—
the stupid ones poisoned, the hard workers
heart-worn and wrecked.
We ate the rhubarb raw, stripped of all its leaves.
Dipped in sugar, it still lingered
bitter on our tongues as some inoculation
against the worst of what was yet to come.
Photo One by By Rasbak – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6656946