January 25, 2011

Early rhubarb: back in the pink!

I am very excited about the new products we are taking to market this season.

As a young girl, I loved rhubarb, even the khaki coloured stuff that caused so much bemoaning in the school dinner queue.

The 'Rhubarb triangle' in West Yorkshire, located between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell supply us with the early rhubarb used in our new product range. Early forced rhubarb is a far cry from the more familiar harshly flavoured overgrown outdoor stems. Their slender magenta spears have a sherbet-tangy flavour and delicate texture that make them the crème de la crème, rhubarb’s premier cru.

Why Yorkshire rhubarb?

Only a few decades ago Yorkshire was producing 90% of the worlds forced rhubarb. This is now much less with forced rhubarb being imported from countries such as Holland.

To produce forced rhubarb takes a minimum of 2½ years. The rhubarb roots (crowns) are grown outdoors for 2-3 years. They are then lifted and left on top of the ground until either a frosty spell of weather or cold rain. This is needed to trick the crown into growth once in the shed.

An outdoor crop is not harvested to ensure the crown has the energy within it to produce quality stalks in the forcing sheds. The large crowns are placed in the shed by hand so they are not damaged. They have to be carefully placed close together and the right way up. This happens around the beginning of November.

The rhubarb is grown in warm dark sheds. It is this combination that encourages the plant to grow. Originally coal was used to heat the sheds but diesel is now used due to the Clean Air Act.

Traditionally candlelight is used in the sheds to harvest the crop, soft light will not affect the rhubarb’s growth. The rhubarb is harvested between December and the end of March. It is expensive to produce, as it is labour intensive requiring many man-hours to lift in the fields and place in the sheds.

After the forced rhubarb has finished the crowns are composted, all their energy is used in one harvest. New crowns have to be used each year.

Intrigued? If you've never tried early rhubarb before, come and sample the flavour of this tightly seasonal delicacy at our stall. We will be selling our new range at Bath Farmer's Market at Green Park Station on the 1st, 3rd & 4th Saturday of the month, or at Frome Farmer's Market at the Cheese & Grain on the 2nd Saturday of the month.

Expect to find some or all of the following:

Early Rhubarb Jam
This light, soft jam is good mixed with yoghurt, spooned over ice-cream, or serve with meringues and a dollop of thick cream for a quick and easy pudding.

Early Rhubarb & Stem Ginger Jam
Crystallised stem ginger gives a nice bite and warmth to this jam. Perfect with sourdough toast, or you can warm it and use it to glaze a bread and butter pudding after baking.

Early Rhubarb & Rosemary Jelly
This jelly makes a delicious alternative to the traditional mint sauce served as an accompaniment to lamb. Works equally well with oily fish such as mackerel.

Early Rhubarb & Fig Jam
A soft set jam with dried Lerida figs. Lovely served with muffins crumpets, or freshly baked brioche. Alternatively, serve with goat’s cheese and thick crusty bread.

Early Rhubarb & Hibiscus Flower Syrup.
This concentrated fruity syrup is made from 100% strained rhubarb juice, sweetened with sugar and infused with the calyces of hibiscus flowers. Hibiscus is a genus of flowering plants in the mallow family that are native to warm-temperate, subtropical and tropical regions throughout the world. Hibiscus has a cranberry-like flavour and blends well with early rhubarb. Either dilute to taste (usually one part syrup to four or five parts water) with fizzy water and plenty of ice, or drizzle neat over pancakes, waffles, or rice pudding.

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