The earliest recorded use of rhubarb is 2700BC, although its use is
thought to date back much further. At this time rhubarbs use was as a
very important drug of the time, being used for a variety of ailments
particularly gut, lung and liver problems.
Marco Polo is attributed in bringing the drug to Europe in the
thirteenth century when it was referred to as the Rhacoma root.
The drug was so highly regarded and much sought after that in 1657 in
England it could command three times the price of Opium.
The first time the plant was seen growing in Britain was in the
sixteenth century when the seeds were introduced in an attempt to grow
and process the drug here, but the wrong strain was imported and
eventually its use in this country went into decline as the British
version simply did not work. The rise of modern medicine eventually took
over from the wondrous drug.
RHUBARB IN THE DIET
Rhubarb was first used in English cooking in the late eighteenth century
probably in an attempt to get the benefits of the drug into the body
(although it had been used extensively in Syria and Persia since the
thirteenth century) only gaining in favour with the British when the
forcing process was discovered in Chelsea Physic Gardens in 1817, when
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 on. Rhubarb at last found favour with the British.
RHUBARB IN YORKSHIRE
In 1877 the forcing of rhubarb began in Yorkshire. The Whitwell family
of Leeds are generally regarded as being the first large-scale grower to
cause significant damage to the London growers.
It was the first place in the world that special sheds were erected just
for the purpose of growing rhubarb out of season; the early basic
technique was further developed and made their own by the Yorkshire
The soil in the area proved perfect for growth of the substantial root
systems necessary to produced sufficient yields of high quality sticks
worthy of a premium price capable of covering the high production costs
associated with this crop.
As rhubarb’s popularity increased so did the producers in this area,
numbering at rhubarb’s height in popularity well over 200.
The quality of the Yorkshire crop became renowned, and demand for it
became so huge that eventually producers in other areas of Britain
simply could not compete, and eventually stopped altogether.
The producers were centralised between Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford,
which became known world wide as The Rhubarb Triangle, the centre for
the world’s production of forced rhubarb.
Rhubarb, a native of Siberia was
originally found growing on the banks of the river Volga.
This tells us two important things
about the plant’s requirements.
The third import requirement is Nitrogen.
The Rhubarb Triangle, situated in the
shadows of the Pennines, is in fact in a frost pocket.
The Pennines have proved invaluable to the growers, as they also give us
the high rainfall necessary to the plant. The Pennines also gave rise to
the woollen industry in the area. As sheep grazed on its bleak hills
they provided the wool for this other important Yorkshire industry. The
Yorkshire water provided the power to work the massive looms.
(Yorkshire water some say helps to give
the rhubarb its preferred flavour, as in the forcing sheds they are
watered using only mains water.)
Almost as if following some great master plan the woollen industry gave
the rhubarb industry the third important plant requirement, SHODDY, a
waste by-product to them, but to the rhubarb industry, high nitrogen
feed, cheap and readily available. The beauty of the nitrogen it
supplies is that it is released slowly over a three year period as the
fibres break down.
The massive Yorkshire coalfields
provided a cheap local source of fuel to heat the sheds.
Geographically centrally positioned in
Great Britain, coincidentally where railroads crossed, gave the
producers a transport system to any corner of the country, so that the
days harvest could be in the market the next morning. Special trains
left the area nightly, mostly bound for the old Covent Garden market,
and from there large amounts were sold on into Europe.
The trains became known as the Rhubarb Express trains as they rushed to
get their valuable cargo to market, carriage after carriage containing
During the Second World War the
government controlled the price of Yorkshire forced rhubarb at one
shilling per pound to keep it financially within the means of the
Rhubarb became part of the staple diet of war time Britain, and
Yorkshire forced rhubarb became almost a national institution.
The industry became one of the largest providers of employment for the
area, as production year on year increased.
Family secrets of production and each
families individual much prized strains were handed down from generation
to generation. Family names such
as Cartlidge, Wade, Asquith, Smith, Dobson, and Oldroyd became
synonymous with Yorkshire
rhubarb, and growers “fought” to gain the much prized awards for their
own particular strains at the annual rhubarb show.
The ‘Crumbling’ of
Unfortunately when you are at the top
the only way
is down, as with any over exposed celebrity. War time Britain’s palate
was rather on the sweet side, and they simply could not get the sugar
that they required to bring this sharp flavoured vegetable to their
taste. Eating large amounts of an item that many found
too sharp did rhubarb no favours. However well meaning were the parents
who made children, ‘eat up your rhubarb its good for you’ helped to turn
a generation away from rhubarb as they were nearly force fed the stuff.
Although they probably did not know why, rhubarb was good for them, it
actually helped along with the rest of their diet, to keep them very
Sticks of rhubarb and a bag of sugar given to children to substitute
their sweet ration, now bring back fond childhood memories to many.
Lumpy custard and stodgy green rhubarb crumble for school dinner won
rhubarb no friends.
After the war, suddenly as overseas
trade began and quick easy refrigerated logistics made a wide range of
new tropical fruits readily available. Poor old rhubarb was left on the
shelf (or in this case the garden).
This spelt disaster for the rhubarb triangle, as the producers were
massively over producing resulting in a loss on their production costs,
some went bankrupt, others sold up before they did,
others turned to other crops Year on year growers left the industry
Being part of the heritage of the
Wakefield / Leeds area, and having current public interest in its
production techniques visitor’s flock to the Wakefield annual rhubarb
festival as the humble rhubarb sheds have now become a tourist
Perhaps not so humble when the likes of Rick Stein, Nigella Lawson,
Anthony Worrell Thompson, Jamie Oliver, Phil Vickery, James Martin,
Brian Turner and Hugh Fernley Whittingstall, all sing the praises of
Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb.
Indeed, Traditionally Grown Yorkshire
Indoor Rhubarb is to the rhubarb industry what champagne is to the wine
Not to be mistaken with an actual variety of outdoor rhubarb called
Champagne, as some journalists and celebrity Chefs refer to forced
rhubarb as ‘Champagne rhubarb’ due to its preferred flavour.