March 12, 2010 § 2 Comments
I finally made a visit in mid February to what I suppose must be the spiritual home of The Rhubarb Fool, Oldroyd’s rhubarb farm in the village of Carlton near Leeds, home to the world’s largest rhubarb forcing shed.
Dutch rhubarb has been inveigling its way into our shops for a couple of months now. Thanks to the “High Priestess of Rhubarb” Janet Oldroyd’s interesting talk I know know how and why that is and why it’s best to wait for the proper stuff from Yorkshire. Whereas Oldroyds and the other 10 remaining Yorkshire rhubarb producers wait patiently for frost to break the dormancy of the rhubarb crowns growing in the fields, the Dutch cheat by spraying their crowns with an active plant hormone, the nasty sounding gibberellic acid.
Rhubarb, or to give it its evocative and alliterative full name Rheum Rhabarbarum is an ancient plant originally from China and Russia. It’s literally the plant of the barbarians and there is some speculation that the Rha in the Latin name might refer to the River Volga in Russia.
On the morning of our visit Janet was dressed appropriately in a vibrant chartreuse outfit the exact acid yellow of forced rhubarb leaves. As she cradled some of the precious rhubarb stalks in her arms I saw the perfect photo opportunity but was just too polite to thrust my camera in her direction. I had to content myself with pictures of the Oldroyd establishment instead.
From 1877 onwards, Yorkshire did indeed lead the way in forced rhubarb production. It had the natural advantages of heavy water retaining soil, cold frosty conditions in winter, high rainfall and plentiful supplies of wool by-product “shoddy” to provide a nitrogen rich fertiliser. The Yorkshire coalfields provided fuel for heating the sheds and the newly built railway lines provided a ready route to market. The Victorian heyday of rhubarb is reflected in the names of the different varieties – Victoria and Albert are both popular but I must say my own palate is not yet sufficiently attuned to detect the difference.
Janet’s talk was interesting but after 30 minutes or so we were all itching to get into the sheds themselves. Finally our time came and we filed solemnly through the plastic curtain into the darkened shed itself lit only by flickering candlelight.
The warm, humid atmosphere and pungent vegetal smell hit us at once. There was a palpable sense of pent-up energy in the shed. As our eyes became accustomed to the soft light we saw row upon row of ruby red crowns largely devoid of soil packed tightly together. The stems were thrusting upwards striving vainly to find the light. The steamy atmosphere of fertility and growth was all too much for one lady in our party – she declared herself a little faint and made a hasty exit!
Our visit ended with an opportunity to buy some of the stuff. Some of the more contrived products (rhubarb wine and rhubarb salad dressing?) didn’t appeal but the gorgeous satin-ribbon pink stalks did. I was sorely tempted by a whole box of the premium grade rhubarb – 20 or so sticks as thick as a baby’s arm presented in a blue presentation box. What a fantastic Valentine’s Day or Mothering Sunday gift that would be! I remained sensible and chose a pound or so of spanking fresh class 1 stalks (or petioles as Janet Oldroyd botanically correctly calls them).
Back home, I cut them up into chunks and baked them in the oven for 20 minutes or so with a generous quantity of golden caster sugar, and the grated zest and juice of an orange. Absolutely gorgeous chilled with a dollop of Greek yoghurt. Since then, I’ve not been able to get enough of the stuff – more rhubarb recipes to follow soon.
If you are tempted to buy some rhubarb, have a look at the producer name on the packet – chances are it will say Oldroyd.