A sense of place: Yorkshire forced rhubarb

Categories: Product stories

How the climate, soil and industrial heritage of Yorkshire conspired to create one of England’s most celebrated foods

Words: Daniel Tapper

With their self-sufficiency, pioneering farming practices and all-round good taste, the food world owes a great deal to Cistercian monks: namely their perfecting of the arts of brewing, cheese making and the production of grapes. But what is less known is their contribution to the term ‘terroir’.

Blessed with large land holdings, these early gastronomes dedicated vast amounts of time to observing how particular plots of land produced different wines, cheeses and beers. Indeed, so sure were Cistercian monks that a food’s environment could directly affect its flavour that some are purported to have tasted the soil before committing to planting their produce—a step too far in my book. 

Over 900 years later and it is widely accepted that the Cistercians were right: climate, soil and geology do play significant roles in defining regional foods. Vacherin Mont d’Or cheese, for example, is soft, sweet and creamy on account of being made with low-fat winter milk taken from cows reared on a diet of sweet local hay. Its trademark resinous flavour, meanwhile, is derived from a mould shaped from the sappy bark of an indigenous spruce. Another obvious example is lambic beer, a dry, vinous and sour ale spontaneously fermented by naturally occurring yeasts that are only found in the air and timberwork of breweries in the Pajottenland region of Belgium.

The role of humans
What is less known about terroir is that the term also incorporates the role of humans. Just like soil or climate, a region’s unique approach to farming, food culture and industry can give rise to some truly distinctive foods. And in England, you’d be stretched to find a finer example of this relationship than Yorkshire rhubarb.

Borough Market boasts a long and impressive history with this special vegetable. Reportedly, the first ever recorded instance of anyone selling conventional rhubarb in Britain took place at the Market in 1810, when an enterprising gardener from Deptford called Joseph Myatt arrived with seven bundles.

Sadly, Borough’s clientele didn’t share Myatt’s enthusiasm, and the hapless entrepreneur returned home with almost all his stock. But Myatt persisted and within a decade over 2,000 tons of the stuff was being sold in London every year. Eager to meet demand, farmers across England began ‘forcing’ rhubarb to grow earlier in the year by warming the root with an extra layer of manure.

The land of rhubarb
A native of Siberia, rhubarb flourished particularly well in West Yorkshire thanks to the area’s high rainfall, moisture retaining soil and early frosts—all products of being nestled beneath the windswept Pennines. However, it was Yorkshire’s industrial heritage that helped to seal God’s Own County as the land of rhubarb. Surrounded by collieries and wool mills, farmers located between Wakefield, Leeds and Bradford began feeding their rootstock on ‘shoddy’, a nitrogen-rich bi-product of the local wool industry. And in 1877 these same farmers became the first to devise specially made wooden forcing sheds, heated using locally mined coal.

By denying the plants any natural light, Yorkshire farmers limited the ability for photosynthesis to take place, resulting in tall, thin rose-hued stalks with a delicate texture and less acidic flavour. Cultivated under controlled light and heat, the rhubarb grew faster, too—up to 5cm a day.

Ferried by express train
Thanks to these characteristics, Yorkshire forced rhubarb became so popular in the early 1900s that an express train was launched, ferrying up to 200 tonnes of forced rhubarb to London every weekday night—all of it sourced from 200 producers within a 30 square-mile area known as the Yorkshire triangle. And as the producers in Yorkshire consistently had the crop ready much earlier than elsewhere in the country, eventually growers in other regions ceased production all together.

Sadly, Yorkshire’s rhubarb triangle is now a shadow of its former self, having shrunk to just nine square-miles in size and comprising just 12 producers. But its reputation remains formidable, with the likes of Ted’s Veg, Elsey & Bent and Paul Wheeler Fresh Supplies all scrambling to get their hands on it between January and March. In 2010, the ingredient was awarded Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, offering it the same degree of protection as the likes of champagne, Parma ham and camembert.

What would an 11th century Cistercian monk make of all this fuss surrounding a bit of northern rhubarb? The phrase “I told you so” comes to mind…

Buyer’s tip
Yorkshire forced rhubarb is available between January and March. Avoid soft, slimy stalks in favour of those that are sturdy and crisp. Don’t remove the rhubarb’s leaves until you’re ready to serve, as this will encourage the rhubarb to go limp. And never eat the leaves: they contain a poisonous substance called oxalic acid.

A traditional crumble is the obvious choice, but forced rhubarb can do so much more. As a vegetable—and not a fruit as many imagine—rhubarb works well with a number of savoury foods, notably cheese, pork and duck. With its ability to cut though oily fish, rhubarb really comes into its own when served with salmon and mackerel. Pair the fish with an orange, watercress and shredded rhubarb salad, or with a ginger, rosemary, rhubarb and cider vinegar chutney. Alternatively, simply roast the rhubarb with water and brown sugar until runny to create a tart, refreshing sauce.