Hidden in darkened sheds, Yorkshire folk are messing about with nature. Nick Harman goes to the Rhubarb Triangle to shine a probing light on an age-old practice
‘If you listen carefully, you can actually hear the rhubarb growing,’ says Janet Oldroyd Hulme as we all obediently fall silent and strain our ears. Silent that is but for the odd sibilant plastic rustle as a kagoul-clad pensioner attempts to stabilise himself on the cold, wet slippery earth of the candlelit forcing shed.
‘Well you could if these were still at the initial growing stage,’ admits Janet, finally breaking the mystic spell. ‘Rhubarb grows at around an inch a day and at the early stage there’s a definite creaking sound as it pushes up. Right, now back outside please!’
There’s actually a bit of a noticeable creaking sound as the pensioners all get their legs going again and compliantly shuffle out of the shed to the rhubarb shop, threading their way through the spooky, albino-ish shoots visible only by the guttering light of the candles on sticks dotted about.
We’re all on safari in the heart of the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’, the area of West Yorkshire where rhubarb is king, a top seasonal crop appreciated by savvy chefs all over the UK. Each morning the forced rhubarb from here is picked and sent out by fast trains to discerning buyers across the country, including Harrods, where it fetches a high price.
I’ve tagged along with the pensioners’ day trip to the Oldroyd Hulme rhubarb farm to find out a bit more about a vegetable (often mistakenly classed as a fruit) that rather blighted my younger days. My father, like so many dads back then, always grew rhubarb on his allotment and it appeared, stewed and covered in claggy custard, every weekend during its season, the sour oxalic acid coating my teenage teeth and haunting my dreams.
It wasn’t of course quality rhubarb like this. Before ushering us into the ghostly sheds Janet, a fourth generation rhubarb grower, treats us to the history and practice of rhubarb growing, especially forcing. Grown in the UK since 1870 and originally from Siberia, it’s a vegetable rich in flavour as well as having a positive and balancing effect upon the digestive system and one of the most widely used herbs in Chinese medicine. There are even claims that rhubarb root (Rheum officinale) can be useful in treatment of Hepatitis B.
Back in the day amateur growers like my father would place a bucket over the dormant rhubarb ‘crowns’ in winter so that when the shoots emerged in the spring they would be starved of light and blanched, so producing a lighter coloured stem and a more delicate flavour. After that initial first flush, the bucket would come off and we would then eat ordinary rhubarb until the longed for day when the bitter oxalic acid became finally too strong and it was time to let the plant get on with storing energy in its roots for the next year.
It’s this stored energy Janet explains, that the professional growers harness to create an even more delicate crop than blanched rhubarb; the famous Yorkshire forced rhubarb. Late in the year, once they’ve suffered the crucial cold spell they need to break their dormancy, the two or three year old rhubarb crowns are dug up from their fields to go into dark heated sheds where, seduced by the cosy warmth into thinking that Spring has sprung, they begin to quickly grow.
With no light to photosynthesise by the emerging shoots have to call on that stored energy in their roots, which is enough to give them their remarkable growth spurt and to produce their uniquely tender and highly sought after delicate champagne pink stems. Once the growth is over, the exhausted crowns are chopped up and recycled back onto the land.
Not so long ago there were nearly 200 rhubarb growers at work in the triangle, but today there are less than twelve. It’s a shrinkage caused by the availability to the consumer of more tempting exotic fruits, by the increasing lack of the necessary cold autumns, the absence of ‘shoddy’, a cheap by-product of the woolen industry traditionally used as fertiliser, and the decline of the local coal mining industry that gave these sheds their relatively cheap source of heating.
Today bought-in fertiliser and expensive propane are what fuel the rhubarb’s growth and so drives up growers’ costs and the price to us in the shops. And then there are the cheaper, but far inferior, imports from Holland and Turkey to contend with.
Traditional growers such as Janet hear the rumours of their industry’s imminent demise but believe the future is actually assured. As she explains, new varieties can adjust for the warmer autumns while modern insulation techniques now make the sheds cheaper to heat. As for the foreign imports, in 2010 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) granted local forced rhubarb the same protected name status enjoyed by products such as champagne and Parma ham. Now no producers of rhubarb outside the West Yorkshire triangle between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield can now pass off their forced rhubarb as the real thing. Hooray for DEFRA.
That night in London we cook the bunch of Janet’s forced rhubarb that I carefully carried all the way back to town. We make a simple but classic rhubarb crumble and the flavour is delicate, sour-sweet and delicious and, although Dad can’t see me because he’s now on the big allotment in the sky, I raise a custard-coated spoon in tribute to his taste; he was right all along, rhubarb really is rather excellent.