Last updated: 6th February 2019
Matthew Green Head Chef of the Northern Belle investigates the history of Rhubarb production in West Yorkshire.
It was about 15 years ago since I last visited the Rhubarb Triangle of Yorkshire. I had just read the There is a Happy Land by Keith Waterhouse. Most famous for his novel Billy Liar, There is a Happy Land tells the story of a few weeks in the life of a small boy on a Leeds council estate where the rhubarb fields and quarries were his playground. Back then a large area of West Yorkshire was devoted to growing this wonderful crop and playing in a ‘tusky field’ was the norm for kids. I expected to see fields and fields of rhubarb as I made my way to Oldroyd’s farm in Rothwell, Leeds. I knew that Yorkshire had a connection with rhubarb and I’ve used it many times in the kitchen but didn’t know the history of it and why Yorkshire was destined to hold the mantle of rhubarb capital of the world. The book I read conjured up memories of my own, sat on my uncles doorstep with a plate of sugar and a stick of rhubarb, freshly plucked from the allotment. I guess it wasn’t the taste of the rhubarb that won me over, more like the pile of sugar that made it appealing. You definitely needed that sugar if you didn’t want to be entered in to the national gurning championships! But forget the stringy, green sour stalks we were familiar with, what I’m talking about is the slim, tall, slender pinky shoots know as forced Yorkshire rhubarb. This stuff is the bee’s knees and put Yorkshire on the agricultural map more than 150 years ago.
Rhubarb is thought to have originated in Russia and was brought over to Europe in the 13th century; The Greeks named the herbaceous perennial plant rhabarbarum because they knew it came from the east namely ‘Rha’ being an old name for the River Volga -where the plant grew on the river banks – and ‘barbarum’ meaning the barbarian lands beyond. The earliest known record of rhubarb is around 2700 BC although its use is thought to be dated much earlier. It was a very popular drug back then and was thought to cure gut problems, constipation and other ailments. The Chinese caught onto the fact that rhubarb had healing properties and used the dried and powdered root as medicine. The Chinese kept the production method of the medicine pulvis rhei secret. It was traded into Europe in the Middle Ages and was highly regarded in England and soon became the drug of choice. In the 16th century it cost ten times as much for the same amount of cinnamon which was an expensive spice at the time and in the 17th century commanded three times the price of opium. The following recipe is an example of how pulvis rhei was used during the sixteenth century: “Steep 30 gram raisins in dry Malvasia (wine) drain them well and sprinkle them with 3 to 4 gram dried rhubarb root. Chew these raisins, and the constipation is gone”. The source of this recipe is Giacomo Castelvetro, an Italian travel writer who lived in England.
It was not until the late eighteenth century that Rhubarb became a culinary ingredient probably in an attempt to get the drug into the body. Maria Rundell (1745-1828) published a recipe for rhubarb pie in A New System of Domestic Cookery (1807). Fifteen years later, Dr. William Kitchiner’s book of 1817 The Cook’s Oracle dedicated a chapter to rhubarb called spring fruit recipes that contain rhubarb. Dishes in the book contain savoury soups made with onions, carrots and ham and also a recipe for mackerel paired with rhubarb sauce. Sweet dishes include, rhubarb pie, pudding and the classical rhubarb fool.
But how did rhubarb make its way to Yorkshire? Rhubarb needs three things to grow well – Cold, water and nitrogen. We have the first two in abundance but in the shadow of the Pennines, the Rhubarb Triangle is in fact situated in a frost pocket so not unlike the cold Siberian wilderness. Not only does the Pennines provide the correct temperature but it also gives us the correct amount of rainfall necessary for the plant. As if by magic other giant industries of Yorkshire at the time played a massive part. The rainfall from the Pennine hills fed the woollen mills the water needed to power to those massive looms. These mills provided the third vital ingredient called shoddy. Shoddy was a by-product of the mills which was the waste woollen cloth or clippings. This mulch was packed full of nitrogen and was a cheap and readily available for the rhubarb industry to make use of. It released nitrogen slowly into the ground over a period of time and provided the plant the goodness it needed to thrive. It gave its root system the energy needed ready for forcing.
Forced rhubarb is not just your bog standard garden variety; forced rhubarb set the bar and brought it into a league of its own. Forced or blanched rhubarb happened by complete accident in the Chelsea Physic Gardens of London around the time Kitchiner’s book was published. Some roots were accidentally covered with soil in the depth of winter. On removing the soil some weeks later tender shoots were noticed. These were found to have a superior flavour and quality than anything ever seen before. From this initial discovery of blanching rhubarb, commercial growers in the London area began growing or blanching rhubarb, covering with soil or manure, some taking it a stage further, actually lifting the roots and placing in buildings to grow in.
In 1877 the forcing of rhubarb began in Yorkshire. The first of the low wooden hanger like forcing sheds of Yorkshire’s rhubarb producers began to spring up in an area of 30 square miles between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield known as the Rhubarb Triangle. These sheds were quiet, dark and warm. The sheds were heated by cheap coal from the coalfields of Yorkshire and were ideal to grow the rhubarb out of season. In December after the first frosts the 2-3 year old ‘crowns’ or roots of the rhubarb plant would be dug from the cold wet soil of the surrounding fields and transferred to the forcing sheds where devoid of food and light they would be watered and kept at a constant temperate. The forcing process relies on the energy the roots have stored. This is where the sorcery happens. Plants need light to photosynthesise and produce chlorophyll, which in turn makes foliage green. Exclude every last shard of light and plants cannot photosynthesise. The light-excluded plant will then desperately reach out in search of light, producing smooth, pale stems in the process.
The conditions were perfect in these Yorkshire fields and sheds. The quality of the Yorkshire crop became renowned and prized and it eventually forced out all other competition around the country. Other growers couldn’t keep up with the pace of the Yorkshire farmers. At the time of its popularity there were well over 200 growers packed into the triangle. Yorkshire became the rhubarb capital of the world. The positioning of these growers was also an important factor. The sheds were centrally located in the country and were close to the main artery of the rail network. There were trains dedicated to shipping only rhubarb as its cargo. These were known as the ‘Rhubarb Express’ trains that took the precious harvest to the markets of London, mainly Covent Garden and Spitalfields and from there into Europe. It was run by the Great Northern Railway Company which ran from Ardsley station every weekday night during the forced rhubarb season from Christmas until Easter. Up to 200 tons of rhubarb sent by up to 200 growers was carried daily at the peak of production before 1939. Over 90% of the world’s rhubarb production was now in Yorkshire. During war time Britain, the government controlled the price of rhubarb and made it affordable to the British public and became a staple diet of the masses. Rhubarb was the king.
Sadly though not long after WW2, trade between other countries became relaxed and Great Britain acquired a sweet tooth. Cheap imports from Holland and more tropical fruits came onto the market and rhubarb fell out of favour with the British public. This was the beginning of the end for the local rhubarb producers. Many went out of business and became bankrupt, others turned their hands to growing other crops and others got out of the game entirely. The last rhubarb train left Leeds in 1966.
As I drove through the village of Carlton near to the Oldroyd’s farm, I caught glimpses of their proud rhubarb past. The village has a rhubarb emblem on their village sign. There are sculptures of rhubarb dotted over the county and banners invite you to the rhubarb festival normally held in February. Janet Oldroyd-Hulme has a family run farm near Wakefield and her determination in keeping the rhubarb faith alive is admirable. Despite the lack of demand and the closures of nearby farms, Janet’s family battled on and continued to stick with growing rhubarb. Janet is the fourth generation of rhubarb growers and is known as the high priestess of rhubarb. Whatever she doesn’t know about rhubarb, it’s frankly not worth knowing. She explained passionately about the process and invited me in for a look around the forcing sheds.
In the sheds, workers pick only by candlelight – harsh light would cause the stalks to lose their colour and turn green within an hour. This spectacle is fascinating to watch. The atmosphere is eerie. If you listen carefully you can actually hear the tissue like membrane of the rhubarb leaves snap, crackle and pop when it unfurls into life. The plant is in confusion it is mistaken for the arrival of spring. Janet says the pupa of certain butterflies that have made it through the winter, sometimes are brought into the sheds on the roots and can be seen to hatch into butterflies and flutter around the ghostly glow of candlelight. Like the chrysalis, the rhubarb plant magically turns from dormant into a striking pillar of pinky blood red goodness growing up to five centimetres a day while searching out the light.
Rhubarb is a painstaking process and Janet’s family lovingly gets on with the job of giving us chefs some of the best produce in the country. She explained the crowns or roots that are brought into the sheds are at least two years old and once they have enough energy stored in their roots, they are then brought into the forcing sheds. Once the forced rhubarb is harvested the crown or rootstock that is left is thrown away because it weakens it so much. This means that a continual rootstock is needed to produce the rhubarb. Her father said “you only get out as much as you put in”, “What a great philosophy in life”, I agree.
The popularity of rhubarb has skyrocketed over the years especially with local and national chefs. You’ll find it on the menus in local pubs to the fine dining menus of Michelin starred restaurants. Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb now has its very own Protected Designated Origin (PDO) status putting it in the same category as Parma Ham, Champagne or Parmesan cheese thanks to the hard work of Janet and the other growers in the area.
Driving home, I was proud that it happened here, although there is competition from the Dutch and Canadian growers overseas, Yorkshire is still the king and spiritual home of rhubarb. Many farms and fields that once grew rhubarb have been given over to building houses as they were very close to the urban areas of Leeds and other bigger towns. There are still about 12 growers in the pink patch and like Janet’s farm; they hold the flag high for cracking local produce.
Many thanks to E. Oldroyd & Sons, Hopefield Farm, Rothwell, Leeds, West Yorkshire. Her website is a great place to start if you want to learn more about rhubarb.
Festival of Food, Drink & Rhubarb at Wakefield Fri 22 - Sun 24 Feb 2019