Rhubarb, Rhubarb

We’re putting a bit of our own rhubarb in the Standard Fruit Bags this week – crack open those Rhubarb Crumble Muffin recipes!

Rhubarb is a native of Siberia and thrives in wet, cold winters (even ones that extend into late April) – making it perfect for Scotland. But though we’re pleased as punch to be able to supply a bit of Moffat rhubarb, ours is slow off the mark compared to the produce from one of the most famous rhubarb growing areas in the UK.

West Yorkshire once produced 90% of the world’s winter forced rhubarb from the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’, an area of about 30 square miles between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield. In the late 19th century early forced rhubarb was sent to Spitalfields and Covent Garden markets in London in time for Christmas and was sent to Paris for the French market. Though much smaller nowadays, the Rhubarb Triangle is still famous for producing early forced rhubarb and has Protected Designation of Origin status from the European Commission.

Yorkshire rhubarb is always kept in the dark
Yorkshire rhubarb is always kept in the dark

Rhubarb plants in the Triangle spend two years in the fields without being harvested, storing energy from the sun in their roots as carbohydrates, before being subjected to frost and transferred to heated sheds in November. There they are planted and kept in complete darkness. In the sheds the plants begin to grow in the warmth and their stored carbohydrate is transformed into glucose, resulting in forced rhubarb’s bittersweet flavour.

The sheds are long, low buildings which are heated – originally with the coal which was plentiful and relatively cheap in the area. Nowadays, diesel is used instead.

Forced rhubarb grown in these sheds is more tender than the stuff we grow outdoors in spring and summer. Without daylight the rhubarb leaves are a pale green-yellow and the 2-foot long stalks are sweet and tender. Traditionally the pickers harvest in candlelight as any exposure to strong light will stop the growth of the stalks. By the end of March the harvest is over, the rhubarb roots totally exhausted and fit only to be used as compost.

Of course, now we can get more exotic fruits from around the world, rhubarb is no longer so popular and the heyday of the Rhubarb Triangle is long gone.

Now, though I come from Yorkshire, I’ve never tried Yorkshire rhubarb. And while I love the idea of keeping the tradition going, I can’t help but feel it’s a very energy intensive way of producing a crop and can’t quite get my head around trashing all those wonderful rhubarb roots!

As far as our fruit bags go, we’ll stick with the unforced rhubarb for the foreseeable future – grown without heat, cropping year after year, it’s our idea of a truly sustainable fruit!

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