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Rhubarb, Rhubarb

If you look across any allotment site in the UK, you’ll find the view punctuated with enormous rhubarb plants. A firm favourite for its early spring harvests and low-maintenance lifestyle, rhubarb is a relative latecomer to the dinner table, and a plant with an exotic history.


The precise origins of rhubarb are somewhat shrouded in mystery. This is to be expected, as it first left its homeland in Tibet or China to be traded as a medicinal product, via the Silk Road. Passed from hand to hand, the details got lost in a game of Chinese whispers, combined with a strong dose of commercial secretiveness.

So rhubarb was originally expensive in Europe, used medicinally by the Greeks and Romans. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that its culinary uses were explored by the West, with the first recorded recipe for sweet rhubarb tarts, and the plant was brought into cultivation in Britain via a strain from Siberia.


Rhubarb’s fortunes changed dramatically in 1817, when a gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London accidentally covered some roots with soil over the winter. Uncovering the plants weeks later, he noted that the pale and tender shoots had a superior flavour. Commercial growers in London jumped on the bandwagon, and Rhubarb Mania took hold.

Cultivation of forced rhubarb spread to West Yorkshire, with growers elevating their techniques to fine art and exporting their crop to London on the Rhubarb Express. Rhubarb is still grown today in the Rhubarb Triangle, in much the same way. Roots are brought into forcing sheds, where they are grown in the dark. Workers harvest the stems by candlelight, and visitors who keep still can hear the plants growing. Rhubarb grown this way in Yorkshire was awarded Protected Designation ofOrigin (PDO) status in 2010.



The rhubarb plant in my garden was one of the first to start back into life this spring, even though it’s still in a pot. It’s a traditional variety - Timperley Early - that was developed to be particularly good for forcing early in the spring. I’m looking forward to planting it out in the garden this year, alongside two newer varieties I’m itching to try. I’ve plumped for Livingstone, which extends the rhubarb season into the autumn, and Lubera’s Siruparber Canada Red, which is particularly good for making rhubarb syrup. I'm also excited to be growing Lowberry Lilibarber, the mini rhubarb you can grow in tiny spaces!

We’re big fans of rhubarb in our house, and we’re hoping for bountiful harvests in the future, particularly from a plant that is so trouble-free to grow! I have been reading Rhubarbaria: Recipes for Rhubarb, a book by Mary Prior. It nicely covers the history of rhubarb as it travelled across the world, but the bulk of the book is a collection of recipes using rhubarb. It has chapters on ‘Rhubarb and Meat’ and ‘Rhubarb and Fish’ alongside the more common cakes, puddings, jams and chutneys. The recipe for ‘Roast Puffin with Rhubarb Jam’ may not appeal to people outside of Iceland and the Faroe Islands (and getting hold of a puffin would be tricky!), but there are plenty of Middle Eastern savoury rhubarb recipes to try that look enticing.




Other things to try include combining rhubarb with garden herbs. Sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) is often mentioned as a way to reduce the amount of sugar needed to sweeten rhubarb; it has a gentle aniseed flavour. Angelica (Angelica archangelica) is a traditional addition to rhubarb in Scandinavia, used fresh rather than candied. And Queen of Herbs, Jekka McVicar, recommends adding a big handful of lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) when stewing rhubarb – tie it into a bunch to make it easy to remove at the end of cooking. She says it cuts down the need for sugar by around half! I have lots of lemon balm in the garden (I love it!), so I must try that one.

There’s certainly no reason to complain about a rhubarb glut, and plenty of reasons to help your rhubarb grow, so check out the 13 most important tips for rhubarb from Markus, make yourself some rhubarb syrup, and sit back and enjoy rhubarb and Prosecco on the patio this summer!

Emma Cooper





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