Splendid news, the Yorkshire forced rhubarb season is underway a couple of weeks earlier than usual. No self respecting menu is complete without this national culinary treasure.
Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb is also known as Yorkshire Champagne Rhubarb. The predominant varieties are Timperley Early, Stockbridge Harbinger and Stockbridge Arrow There is (rather confusingly) a variety of rhubarb called Champagne which is mainly grown in the south, not Yorkshire.
YF Rhubarb starts in January and finishes when the cheaper outdoor crop starts, usually towards the end of April.
Our rhubarb is mostly from Oldroyds Ltd. Fifth generation growers based in Wakefield Yorkshire.
You may have seen Janet Oldroyd on the telly or heard her on the radio. She was one of Rick Steins food heroes, she drank rhubarb vodka with Hugh FW and presented a rhubarb documentary for Channel 4.
There are two types of rhubarb
Outdoor Rhubarb: Thick, fibrous, khaki coloured stalks that are teeth achingly sour. Usually served in schools, hospitals and prisons, we've been in two out of three but we're not telling you which.
Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb: Glowing pink, tender stalks that are absolutely delicious. To be found on all the bests menus. Just as special, in its own way, as wild strawberries, asparagus or truffles. A national culinary treasure.
They're both the same plant, the difference is in the growing.
Rhubarb is from North East Asia, the colder bits of Russia and China, like Siberia.
The Chinese have used it, mainly medicinally, for about 3000 years.
Marco Polo brought it to Europe and it arrived in Britain in the 16th century.
Forcing was accidentally discovered about 50 years later at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. Apparently a plant was accidentally covered by builders rubble or a pot then uncovered some months later to reveal lovely slender stems of glowing pink forced rhubarb.
Forcing in the Yorkshire triangle really took off in the late 1800's. The sheds were fuelled with locally mined coal, the soil fertilised with reject wool from the mills and the soil made sulphurous by industrial pollution. Rhubarb likes a bit a of sulphur. Nowadays, with cleaner air, it has to be added to the soil by the growers.
A hundred years ago there were over 200 growers in the triangle. Nowadays there are only about ten left.
The Rhubarb Triangle
If its not from the triangle between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield then it's not the real thing. In 2010 YF Rhubarb was registered as an EU unique regional food (PDO) like Jersey Royal Potatoes or Champagne, the criteria being that it is geographically and culturally unique. It helps that the triangle is a frost pocket, ideal for the special growing process.
YF Rhubarb is both forced and blanched.
Forcing is growing outside the normal season by artificial means. Heated greenhouses for example.
Blanching means growing in complete darkness. The plant grows long and thin as it vainly searches for light and never develops any green colouring (chlorophyll). Think of pisenlit and ordinary dandelion.
After three years outdoors and a final whack of heavy frosting (a finishing period at sub zero temperatures is essential to the process, it fuels growth) the plants, or crowns, are lifted into specially built forcing sheds. The sheds are heated to a constant 13C and are completely dark.
The suddenly warmed plants think its spring and growth is rapid, some say you can hear the buds pop as the stalks burst forth. Once ready, harvesting is still by torch and candlelight.