Rhubarb crumble is a firm family favourite as a winter pudding. Its tart taste is not to everyone’s liking. Early medical usage dates back to Tudor times as a purgative. The addition of sugar extended its appeal in Britain. Even the French acknowledge that this culinary innovation was truly British. The first recipe is attributed to Mrs Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell (1745-1828) in 1806, although John Farley recommended cooking Rhubarb with Gooseberries in The London Art of Cookery in 1783. Today, perhaps Rhubarb has been overshadowed by imported fruit from sunnier climes. Is it time to take a second look at this traditional British dessert?
First things first: we only eat the stems of this hardy perennial. Rhubarb leaves are toxic. While it is not truly British, we made it ours. The origin is believed to be China where it was used medicinally. Nowadays, we eat the edible stalks of Rheum rhabarbarum and 2 or 3 other species in the Rheum genus in the Polygonaceae or Knotweed/Buckwheat family.
Fruit or Vegetable?
Strictly speaking, Rhubarb is a vegetable. However, it is sold and used like a fruit. In 1947, the US Customs Court at Buffalo, New York ruled it a fruit for tariff purposes. The decision was based on the fact that it is normally eaten like a fruit.
That we eat the cooked stems at all is down to English-born Joseph Myatt (1771-1855). He bred new hybrids from Russian Rhubarb. He decided to sell Rhubarb commercially in London’s Borough Market. His early efforts resulted in ridicule. He was derided as the man who sold physic pies. His dogged perseverance and canny marketing with varieties named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert eventually won the day. In his lifetime, his fame as a market gardener was mainly as a result of his Strawberry and Cyclamen varieties. His name lives on primarily due to Rhubarb. The prized variety named after Queen Victoria survives to this day.
Rhubarb also has a strong botanical connection to Linnaeus. The Swedes may have grown Rhubarb earlier than the British, but it was the Victorians who popularised its culinary use. Samuel Ziervogel wrote a dissertation about Rhubarb’s medicinal use under the supervision of Linnaeus in 1752. Myatt even named one of his cultivars after Linnaeus in 1842. The British National Collection contains over 130 varieties at the National Trust’s property at Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire.
The Royal Horticultural Society notes that field-grown Rhubarb is ready for harvesting in the summer. The discovery of forced Rhubarb is credited to the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1815. Workmen dug a trench and threw rubble onto an apparently empty flower bed. The removal of the rubble in spring revealed long, tender Rhubarb shoots. The taste was considered far better than the classic tough stems. Thus, the practice of covering Rhubarb with earthenware pots emerged by accident.
The Rhubarb Triangle
The Linnaeus cultivar mentioned above was once the most successful forcing variety. Our sweetest British Rhubarb is called Champagne Rhubarb. This variety is grown commercially in huge, heated barns in low light and away from the winter cold. Originally, the barns were candlelit. An area of Yorkshire between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell became known as the Rhubarb Triangle.
The practice of forcing Rhubarb enables its recognition in this advent botany calendar. The stems are forced as a winter crop from December into March.
References and Further Reading
- Blakely, Julia (2015): Celebrate the Rhubarb. Unbound Smithsonian Libraries and Archives. Blog. 21 January 2015
- Case, Frances (Ed.) (2008): 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die. A Global Guide to the Best Ingredients. Cassell Illustrated.
- Compound Interest (2015): Why Shouldn’t You Eat Rhubarb Leaves? – The Chemistry of Rhubarb. 16 April 2015.
- Darley, Kathryn (?): Joseph Myatt (1771-1855). Joseph Myatt Biography.
- Davidson, Alan (2006): The Oxford Companion to Food. Second Edition. Oxford.
- Fugler, Ann (2017): Feeling the Force in Yorkshire’s Rhubarb Triangle. Great Food Club. 18 January 2017
- Peters, Rick (2010): Seasonal food: rhubarb. The Guardian. 27 January 2010.
- Royal Horticultural Society (2021): How to Grow Rhubarb. RHS Gardening.
- Stocks, Christopher (2008): Forgotten Fruits. A guide to Britain’s traditional fruit and vegetables. Random House Books. London.
Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.
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