Why the neon pink, protected status stalks of lovingly-grown forced Yorkshire rhubarb deserve a destiny beyond crumble. Plus, a collection of sweet and savoury recipes to help you celebrate the height of its season.
Rhubarb is a national hero of a fruit (although it’s actually a stalk vegetable). When the beautifully bright pink forced variety first pops up on menus, you know it’s time to get excited, very excited. Available from January to late March/early April, forced rhubarb is grown in the dark in the wonderfully named ‘rhubarb triangle’, the area around Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford.
They can grow up to five centimetres a day in the controlled light and soil conditions that give forced rhubarb its glorious bright pink hue, white flesh and delicate, sharp flavour. And if you’re anything like Nigel Slater when he was a kid, you’ll love slicing off a thumb of the pink-stuff and casually dipping it into brown sugar for a quick tangy hit — a bit like a stripped-back sherbet dip.
Meet the sixth-generation forced rhubarb farmer
David Westwood’s family farm have been producing forced rhubarb for generations. Their farm is located in Wakefield in the heart of Yorkshire’s ‘Rhubarb Triangle’ where the crop thrives in the sulphur rich soil. The sulphur is said to have originated from the soot of the industry in the area.
David continues a process started by great-uncle in 1870, where the roots are grown outside for two years to ensure a good build up of sugars for sweet and tender rhubarb. The roots are then are moved to sheds to be grown in the dark and the rhubarb stalks are harvested by candlelight to avoid photosynthesis which can make the stalks bitter and more acidic.
With the help of his family, especially his son Jonathan, David continues this complex traditional method to ensure its delicate flavour and incredible bright pink colour, recognised the world over as a sign of quality and provenance. There are even tales of ‘hearing’ the creaks and crackles of its stalks moving up the soil as it grows rapidly in the darkness.
The growth of forced Yorkshire rhubarb began in West Riding during in the late 1800s when other fresh fruits were in short supply. Forced Yorkshire rhubarb now enjoys the top European Food Status of a Product of Designated Origin (PDO), and has garnered international repute with the world’s best chefs.
5 ways to cook forced Yorkshire rhubarb
Delightfully easy, this is great if you’re short on time, or just can’t wait get stuck into it’s bright stalks. Slice rhubarb into chunky batons and place in a pan with equal parts sugar and water, lemon juice and zest. Bring to the boil, reduce heat and poach for five minutes. Serve with vanilla ice cream for a cool take on rhubarb and custard. Try your hand at our Rhubarb & Black Pepper Compote for a savoury spicy twist or a tangy hit in our Mackerel and Rhubarb Relish dish.
Throw together the usual pickle suspects sugar, cider vinegar, salt, ginger and peppercorns, boil up and pop into jars. Serve with crumbly cheese, charcuterie or oily fish such as mackerel or sardines — it’ll cut through the fat nicely. New to pickling? Try our easy and fresh-tasting Rhubarb Pickle that’s got a little poke too.
Did you know you can use rhubarb to make a deliciously silky butter to smother over meat and pan-fried fish? Start with poaching method above. Add a little fish stock, reduce for five minutes and push through a sieve. Reheat before serving and whisk in a generous knob of butter — this will give it good gloss. You can try this with veg stock and serve with pork.
Let the rhubarb shine in this simple, four ingredient sweet treat. Simmer gently three parts of rhubarb cut into chunks with two parts caster sugar and one part water with a little lemon juice until soft. Leave the mixture to cool and blitz in a blender until smooth. Use an ice cream maker to chill and then place in the tub in the freezer. Or if you don’t have an ice cream maker, place in a tub and stir up with a fork every hour for up to six hours and you’ll have a tantalising, granita-like texture.
Perfect to enjoy after a Sunday lunch, show the stalks off in a simple yet elegant, rich and almond-y frangipane. Or keep you options open by baking them in a batch to enjoy over a few days on top of french toast, pancakes, or muesli with yoghurt. To bake, place the batons in a dish in a medium-hot oven with shavings of orange zest and a little juice until softened but still hold their shape. And finally, we know there’s much, much more to rhubarb than crumble, but we won’t deny you a classic. Up your usual crumble with crunchy nuts and fresh ginger in our Rhubarb Gingernut Crumble.