The earliest recorded use of rhubarb is 2700BC, although its use is thought to date back much further. At this time rhubarbs use was as a very important drug of the time, being used for a variety of ailments particularly gut, lung and liver problems.
Marco Polo is attributed in bringing the drug to Europe in the thirteenth century when it was referred to as the Rhacoma root.
The drug was so highly regarded and much sought after that in 1657 in England it could command three times the price of Opium.
The first time the plant was seen growing in Britain was in the sixteenth century when the seeds were introduced in an attempt to grow and process the drug here, but the wrong strain was imported and eventually, its use in this country went into decline as the British version simply did not work. The rise of modern medicine eventually took over from the wondrous drug.
RHUBARB IN THE DIET
Rhubarb was first used in English cooking in the late eighteenth century probably in an attempt to get the benefits of the drug into the body (although it had been used extensively in Syria and Persia since the thirteenth century) only gaining in favour with the British when the forcing process was discovered in Chelsea Physic Gardens in 1817, when some roots were accidentally covered with soil in the depth of winter. On removing the soil some weeks later tender shoots were noticed. These were found to have a superior flavour and quality than anything ever seen before. From this initial discovery of blanching rhubarb, commercial growers in the London area began growing or blanching rhubarb, covering with soil or manure, some taking it a stage further, actually lifting the roots and placing in buildings to grow on. Rhubarb at last found favour with the British.
RHUBARB IN YORKSHIRE
In 1877 the forcing of rhubarb began in Yorkshire. The Whitwell family of Leeds are generally regarded as being the first large-scale grower to cause significant damage to the London growers.
It was the first place in the world that special sheds were erected just for the purpose of growing rhubarb out of season; the early basic technique was further developed and made their own by the Yorkshire growers.
The soil in the area proved perfect for the growth of the substantial root systems necessary to produced sufficient yields of high-quality sticks worthy of a premium price capable of covering the high production costs associated with this crop.
As rhubarb’s popularity increased so did the producers in this area, numbering at rhubarb’s height in popularity well over 200.
The quality of the Yorkshire crop became renowned, and demand for it became so huge that eventually producers in other areas of Britain simply could not compete, and eventually stopped altogether.
The producers were centralised between Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford, which became known worldwide as The Rhubarb Triangle, the centre for the world’s production of forced rhubarb.
Rhubarb, a native of Siberia was originally found growing on the banks of the river Volga.
This tells us two important things about the plant’s requirements.
The third import requirement is Nitrogen.
The Rhubarb Triangle, situated in the shadows of the Pennines, is in fact in a frost pocket.
The Pennines have proved invaluable to the growers, as they also give us the high rainfall necessary to the plant. The Pennines also gave rise to the woollen industry in the area. As sheep grazed on its bleak hills they provided the wool for this other important Yorkshire industry. The Yorkshire water provided the power to work the massive looms.
(Yorkshire water some say helps to give the rhubarb its preferred flavour, as in the forcing sheds they are watered using only mains water.)
Almost as if following some great master plan the woollen industry gave the rhubarb industry the third important plant requirement, SHODDY, a waste by-product to them, but to the rhubarb industry, high nitrogen feed, cheap and readily available. The beauty of the nitrogen it supplies is that it is released slowly over a three year period as the fibres break down.
The massive Yorkshire coalfields provided a cheap local source of fuel to heat the sheds.
Geographically centrally positioned in Great Britain, coincidentally where railroads crossed, gave the producers a transport system to any corner of the country so that the days’ harvest could be in the market the next morning. Special trains left the area nightly, mostly bound for the old Covent Garden market, and from there large amounts were sold on into Europe.
The trains became known as the Rhubarb Express trains as they rushed to get their valuable cargo to market, carriage after carriage containing the only rhubarb.
During the Second World War, the government controlled the price of Yorkshire forced rhubarb at one shilling per pound to keep it financially within the means of the ordinary people.
Rhubarb became part of the staple diet of wartime Britain, and Yorkshire forced rhubarb became almost a national institution.
The industry became one of the largest providers of employment for the area, as production year on year increased.
Family secrets of production and each families individual much-prized strains were handed down from generation to generation. Family names such
as Cartlidge, Wade, Asquith, Smith, Dobson, and Oldroyd became synonymous with Yorkshire rhubarb, and growers “fought” to gain the much prized awards for their own particular strains at the annual rhubarb show.
The ‘Crumbling’ of an empire
Unfortunately when you are at the top the only way is down, as with any over exposed celebrity. War time Britain’s palate was rather on the sweet side, and they simply could not get the sugar that they required to bring this sharp flavoured vegetable to their taste. Eating large amounts of an item that many found
too sharp did rhubarb no favours. However well meaning were the parents who made children, ‘eat up your rhubarb its good for you’ helped to turn a generation away from rhubarb as they were nearly force fed the stuff.
Although they probably did not know why, rhubarb was good for them, it actually helped along with the rest of their diet, to keep them very healthy.
Sticks of rhubarb and a bag of sugar given to children to substitute their sweet ration, now bring back fond childhood memories to many.
Lumpy custard and stodgy green rhubarb crumble for school dinner won rhubarb no friends.
After the war, suddenly as overseas trade began and quick easy refrigerated logistics made a wide range of new tropical fruits readily available. Poor old rhubarb was left on the shelf (or in this case the garden).
This spelt disaster for the rhubarb triangle, as the producers were massively over producing resulting in a loss on their production costs, some went bankrupt, others sold up before they did, others turned to other crops Year on year growers left the industry
Being part of the heritage of the Wakefield / Leeds area, and having current public interest in its production techniques visitor’s flock to the Wakefield annual rhubarb festival as the humble rhubarb sheds have now become a tourist attraction.
Perhaps not so humble when the likes of Rick Stein, Nigella Lawson, Anthony Worrell Thompson, Jamie Oliver, Phil Vickery, James Martin, Brian Turner and Hugh Fernley Whittingstall, all sing the praises of Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb.
Indeed, Traditionally Grown Yorkshire Indoor Rhubarb is to the rhubarb industry what champagne is to the wine industry.
Not to be mistaken with an actual variety of outdoor rhubarb called Champagne, as some journalists and celebrity Chefs refer to forced rhubarb as ‘Champagne rhubarb’ due to its preferred flavour.