This week we began picking the earliest of fruits in the Old Kitchen Garden, and in a soft-focus moment I remembered how, two years ago last month, a bunch of us set forth to navigate the Rhubarb Triangle, as my birthday treat. This might seem a strange idea, but really, if you can’t drag your mates off to a small village near Wakefield to spend an afternoon watching rhubarb grow in a shed on your birthday, then what, other than for being born, is the point of it in the first place?
It was a sight of eerie magnificence: as far as the eye could see, darkness, but for a few candles illuminating dense screaming crimson stalks stretching starwards with the simplest and surest faith in light.
A unique combination of environmental and social factors led to rhubarb production being concentrated in a frost pocket between Wakefield, Leeds and Bradford. Similar but different to those which made our Lea Valley the hotbed of glasshouse salads: for both, these factors have declined in importance, or disappeared, but a legacy continues.
For those in the Triangle, it’s a living legacy to be proud of: shortly after our visit (though, I regret to say, unconnected to it) Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb achieved European Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status: only the second British fruit & veg to achieve it, after Jersey Royals; and putting it in the same league as Champagne wine, Parma ham and Kentish Ale. Yet whist West Yorkshire may be the home of “Champagne rhubarb”, as this early crop is known, its origins are firmly rooted in the Thames Valley basin.
Into the nineteenth century, rhubarb was solely used as a medicinal herb, its root being an effective purgative. It’s also an effective hair bleacher, and I guess I’m not the only fair haired rhubarb grower to have been accused of resorting to this herbal dye. Fortunately, this smear didn’t stick, as most people concede I must have some blonde genes, due to my undeniable gormlessness.
Gorm was also in short supply at the Chelsea Physic Garden in the winter of 1816, when some local tradesmen were repairing a wall. Job done, rubble and detritus were duly left on the Rheum rhabarbarum bed: that spring as ever, the gardeners were left to make good the builders’ collateral damage. In so doing they found a collection of straining, bleached shoots desperately trying to push through the ruins. Natural curiosity being what it is, they sampled the freak plant growth, and found it to be much sweeter, more succulent and edible than the tough trunks they had hitherto known. Before long, rhubarb pies were being sold on London streets. By the end of the century, West Yorkshire folk had knocked up some forcing sheds and taken it to new scarlet heights.
“The best things in a garden happen by accident”, says the almost infallible Monty Don. And like all accidents, they can come from some pretty surprising corners: for champagne rhubarb, their crowning achievement, Northern horticulturalists have to thank not just a soft Londoner, but that most maligned of London characters, the cockney cowboy builder. Of Chelsea. If the Physic Garden had only taken the reasonable step of freezing their wall repairs budget until various brick taxes and imperial wars had settled down a bit, he might have been a Chelsea fan to boot.
Here at Hawkwood, we don’t go to the stoic effort of digging up our “Timperly Early” and carting it off to be forced in a shed: instead, we blanche it in situ. We don’t scatter London bricks; nor wool shoddy in the Pennine tradition, instead, the plastic fabric so beloved of the Lea Valley’s remaining commercial growers. I doubt we’ll ever get PDO status for our London Blanched Rhubarb. The smiling pink shank of this sweet & sour fruit of winter has to be reward enough.