Rhubarb stalks (the leaves are toxic) are commonly cut to short lengths and stewed with ample sugar, alone, or as part of a pudding or sweet desert.
Freshly harvested Crimson Red rhubarb
Rhubarb probably originates in China and is known in England at least since the c1390 'Pistel of Swete Susan'; "Columbyne and Charuwe clottes þei creue, With Ruwe and Rubarbe, Ragget ariht." (OED).
All early references to the plant are to its medicinal properties. Rhubarb was highly prized, in concentrated powder form, as a laxative. In 1839 the Chinese imperial commissioner Lin Zexu wrote to Queen Victoria suggesting that, if England didn't stop trading in opium, China might halt exports of rhubarb, with terrifying consequences to the constipation-prone English.
The first known English rhubarb food receipt we can find is in Hannah Glasse's 'Compleat Confectioner' of 1760; "To make rhubarb tarts. Take stalks of English rhubarb..peel and cut it the size of goosberries; sweeten it, and make them as you do goosberry tarts."
Oldroyd’s Rhubarb sheds
Image: Alex Bray...
As it is the stalk that is used, not the reproductive parts, rhubarb is a vegetable, not a fruit.
Most of England's rhubarb is sourced from within the 'Rhubarb Triangle' between the Yorkshire towns of Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell where a distinctive method of cultivation has been followed since it was perfected by Whitwell family of Leeds in 1877. Young rhubarb stocks, grown outdoors, are 'forced' in heated sheds in complete darkness. This results in a paler-coloured, softer and sweeter stick. Harvesting is done by candlelight as full light, even for a short period, has been found to arrest the artificially speeded growth.
So important was the trade that an express 'Rhubarb Train' used to run to the London Covent Garden and Spitalfields Markets from Ardsley station every weekday night during the forced rhubarb season from just before Christmas until Easter. It ran every year until the 1961-2 winter when a rail strike caused the growers to seek alternative transport.
There is an annual Rhubarb Festival in Wakefield.
Rhubarb growing by candlelight in the Yorkshire forcing sheds
Some receipts and references in Foods of England include:
Rhubarb and Date Bread
Rhubarb and Ginger Jam
Rhubarb and Mixed Peel Jam
Rhubarb and Orange Crumble
Spring Fruit Soup (with ham)
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