Kitchen-garden diary: in praise of rhubarb

Ameer Kotecha
·4-min read
Photo credit: NATALIA YANEZ-STIEL
Photo credit: NATALIA YANEZ-STIEL

From Town & Country

Is there any more British a fruit than rhubarb? Surely not, except for the fact that it is, strictly speaking, not a fruit but a vegetable. Rhubarb is something that we Brits enjoy with a gusto that others don’t. Americans do sometimes take pleasure in dessert made with what they call “pie plant”. But continental Europeans struggle to understand these stringy-textured stalks with an exceptionally sour flavour.

It used to be much more highly prized. The earliest rhubarb was imported into Europe from Asia along the Silk Road. The cost of transportation meant that it was several times more expensive even than saffron. It led the explorer Marco Polo to seek out where it was grown, a search that took him to the mountains of north-western China. And an early-15th-century ambassador in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, reported in his diplomatic despatches that, “The best of all merchandise coming to Samarkand was from China: especially silks, satins, musk, rubies, diamonds, pearls and rhubarb…”

It is the fleshy stalks that you eat, technically called the petioles. The leaves are toxic and so should certainly not be eaten, despite Thomas Jefferson’s rather dubious assertion that the leaves are “excellent as Spinach” having planted rhubarb at his gardens in Monticello. It is worth keeping the leaves attached to the stalks, though, until you are ready to cook your rhubarb, and storing it in the fridge, for it wilts quickly. Look for stalks that are crisp and firm and plump.

There are two types of rhubarb really. Outdoor-bred ‘maincrop rhubarb’ is in season from late March and is what you will enjoy now. But ‘forced rhubarb’, which has paler, thinner stalks, and is more tender and delicately flavoured than maincrop, is available as early as January – a precious thing in those cold, dark months, with so little other home-grown fruit around. Forced rhubarb is a special thing: it comes from the Rhubarb Triangle in West Yorkshire, grown in sheds in darkness to trick the plants into thinking it is spring. It was so enjoyed that there used to be a dedicated rhubarb sleeper train bringing forced rhubarb from Yorkshire to Covent Garden Market. And during wartime rationing, its price was strictly controlled so every family in the land had enough for crumble. But you do not need to grow rhubarb by candlelight yourself; it is one of the easiest things to grow in the allotment – you will just have to be patient and wait until spring for your harvest.

There is something about these crimson stalks that is so very old-fashioned and nostalgic. Childhood puds of rhubarb crumble partly explains it; as does the memory of rhubarb and custard boiled sweets. And some may have been given as kids the simple treat of a tender stick of rhubarb dipped in sugar, to suck and chew.

They do require sugar, to counteract the astringent taste. It was in the 18th to 19th centuries, when sugar became more widely affordable in England, that rhubarb’s popularity began to grow. You can experiment with other sweeteners too – honey or maple syrup for example. Whatever you use be liberal and bake together with finger-length pieces of the rhubarb until tender. It is then ready for spooning into Greek yoghurt, or porridge for breakfast, or using in fools, crumbles or pies.

Rhubarb is very good friends with vanilla and ginger. Delia uses the latter – both root ginger and the crystallised form – in her much-loved recipe for rhubarb yoghurt fool. Americans love to combine rhubarb with strawberries in their pies. And there are more unusual flavour combinations to try too: anise for example, which Thomasina Miers uses in this rhubarb galette.

The classic combination with custard takes some beating. The pairing is given a playful twist by Nadiya Hussein in her rhubarb and custard butter kisses. And in this dinner-party dessert of baked custard and rhubarb granita.

Do not forget to use its tartness to cut through fatty meat or oily fish, as Nigel Slater does with mackerel. If you are looking for more unusual uses, rhubarb can flavour various drinks; like the Finnish non-alcoholic mead, raparperisima, where it is combined with fresh yeast to make a bubbly beverage. Try making rhubarb bitters, combining the rhubarb with citrus peel and cinnamon. Have a go at the Polish drink Kompot; or leave the experimentation to others and try the rhubarb cider from the independent cider makers Umbrella London.

Rhubarb is a peculiarly British love affair. One devotee has even written an entire book about it. Bonkers maybe – but that’s the effect a perfect rhubarb crumble can have on you.