What Is Rhubarb?!
How To Serve Rhubarb
The most common way to prepare rhubarb is to cut the stalks into pieces and stew them with sugar to form a compote, which can then be used in all sorts of delicious desserts. The most popular rhubarb desserts are pies, crumbles and tarts. This compote can also be made into a crème brulee, paired with whipped cream to make a rhubarb fool, or paired with custard to make the school dinner classic – rhubarb and custard tart. It can also be similarly prepared with plenty of sugar to make jams, preserves, syrups, sorbets and so on. Popular spices to pair with rhubarb are ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Rhubarb chutney is simple to make and goes well with cheese and cold meats in a European style dish, and can also be a great alternative to many chutneys popular in Asian dishes.
A traditional way to consume rhubarb is to simply dip the stalks in sugar. This is particularly popular in Scandinavia, where it is also used in making alcoholic drinks like mead, wine or Kompot. Rhubarb can also be desiccated to make a candy, with Americans adding strawberry juice to mimic the strawberry-rhubarb pie.
Though less common, rhubarb can be used in salads, salsas or in sauces. Rhubarb can be eaten raw, and the best can be brought out of its unique flavour without using too much sugar. It can be used as a fruity tasting accompaniment to meat, especially pork or duck.
What Are The Origins Of Rhubarb?
The origin of rhubarb is in north-western China and Mongolia, something that was unknown to Europeans until Marco Polo travelled the Silk Road and located its source. Due to how far it had to travel, it was extremely expensive in Europe, even more expensive than exotic spices and medicines like cinnamon and opium.
Rhubarb is described as a medicine in Chinese books almost two thousand years old, and this was how it was used in Europe too, as late as the 20th Century. It was thought to be effective in purging the digestive system of disease. Demand for rhubarb was high, and the price was even higher, so in the 18th Century Brits managed to successfully grow their own rhubarb. They weren’t successful in competing with Chinese rhubarb as a medicine – British pharmacists continued to regard it as inferior to that from China as late as the 1920s when investigating it as a treatment for dysentery. Luckily though this was around the time that sugar was becoming more available, and people started to use sweetened rhubarb as a ‘false fruit’ just like today.
Where Does The Name Rhubarb Come From?
When Did Rhubarb Become Popular?
Rhubarb’s popularity in the UK peaked between the two world wars. During the rhubarb season specially commissioned express trains would carry tons of rhubarb every night of the working week from Yorkshire to the London markets of Spitalfields and Covent Garden. Rhubarb’s heyday ended with the increased availability of more exotic fruits after World War Two which didn’t need to be sweetened. It also might have had something to do with memories of unsweetened wartime crumbles. However, it has experienced a resurgence as people have returned to the classics of British cooking.
Maybe the strangest part of rhubarb’s history is its role in film and television. In those scenes in pubs or restaurants actors and extras would sometimes create the sound of a general hubbub by just saying ‘rhubarb’ over and over. This inspired Eric Sykes’ 1969 movie, Rhubarb, a Mr. Bean-style comedy in which the only thing anyone ever says is ‘rhubarb’!
How To Store Rhubarb
Rhubarb stores perfectly well in the fridge, for as long as a fortnight. It will also last a few days if just left in a cool dark place. Rhubarb freezes well, although defrosting will break it down slightly, so frozen rhubarb is best for uses like sauces and desserts. Rhubarb can also be preserved by making it into a chutney or a jam.
Seasonality Of Rhubarb
Rhubarb is grown in two different ways which drastically changes its seasonality. In the UK, Rhubarb grown in the field will be available from April until late summer. Rhubarb grown in ‘hothouses’, heated greenhouses, or forced rhubarb grown in the famous ‘Rhubarb Triangle’ in Yorkshire, is typically available from late December to March.
Nutrition & Safety Of Rhubarb
In terms of nutrition, raw rhubarb is basically celery with a strong flavour. Rhubarb is a very low-calorie vegetable with a decent amount of vitamins and minerals, particularly Vitamin K, Vitamin C and calcium. This is assuming no sugar has been added to it! For every kilogram of raw rhubarb, you could be using 150-300 grams of sugar. Unfortunately, rhubarb also contains some oxalic acid, which binds to the calcium making your body unable to absorb it.
Some people think raw rhubarb is poisonous due to the oxalic acid it contains, but it isn’t, and it won’t produce more oxalic acid the longer you store it.
Rhubarb leaves can’t be eaten and the reason for this is that they contain a very large amount of oxalic acid. For most, healthy people, the amount of oxalic acid in rhubarb shouldn’t be a concern, and studies have shown that it’s not going to reduce the amount of calcium you get from your diet – just from the rhubarb. If you are prone to kidney stones, though, you might want to keep away from rhubarb, as calcium oxalate, which you get when you combine calcium and oxalic acid, is what kidney stones are mostly made of.
How To Select Quality Rhubarb
Forced rhubarb will be pink, slim and more tender, while field rhubarb tends to be stubbier, coarser, and its colour can involve reds, pinks and greens. As the season progresses, the rhubarb will tend to be more fibrous.
All good rhubarb will pass the snap test – it should be crisp and release sap. Rhubarb that’s gone off will be pretty noticeable from the discolouration and decline in texture.
How Does Rhubarb Grow?
Rhubarb is grown naturally outdoors in the UK. Outside the outdoor season, rhubarb can be grown indoors. ‘Forced’ rhubarb is grown in forcing sheds, which are kept dark at all times except for candlelight. This basically tricks the rhubarb into thinking that it has to grow taller to reach the sunlight, resulting in rhubarb that is sweeter, more tender, and has a pale pink colour.
Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb roots are grown outdoor in the fields, for two to three years, before they are lifted in early to late November, to be taken into the forcing sheds. This can only happen after the roots have received enough cold which helps break the dormancy of the rhubarb crowns. During the two years’ the rhubarb is grown outside, it requires lots of sunshine and nitrogen to build up the energy in the root as once in the forcing sheds, it received no more feeding. The nitrogen comes from the “shoddy”, which is released slowly over a three year period. Ideal for the rhubarb.
Once bedded into the sheds, the roots are heated and supplied with the right amount of water, and three weeks later the forced crop can start to be harvested. The rhubarb is grown in complete darkness and harvested by candlelight, to keep the stems bright pink and the leaves yellow. The forced crop tends to be very tender and much sweeter than the rhubarb produced outside.
The Rhubarb Triangle
The Rhubarb Triangle doesn’t have anything to do with mysterious disappearances, although what goes on there is a little unusual! The Rhubarb Triangle is an area in Yorkshire famed for its forced rhubarb, which has Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status.
Forced RhubarbEnquire Today
You can see some of the rhubarb we stock when available. We are also able to source specialist rhubarb products when in season, such as forced rhubarb – please contact our team to discuss your requirements.
We’ve created some recipe dish ideas using rhubarb to help inspire your menus!