I do enjoy Gardener’s World – an hour of delightful diversion, relaxing and thoroughly good for you. Whenever Monty Don so much as mentions a plant that I have in my garden I instantly feel as if this makes me a Proper Gardener. So, imagine my excitement last Friday when he was talking about picking your first rhubarb of the year and went on to say how a breakfast of stewed rhubarb and yoghurt was one of the most delicious breakfasts you could eat… that was just what I had tucked into myself earlier in the day! The combination is so yummy (a top culinary term!) the creamy yoghurt and tart rhubarb – and what’s more, it makes you feel virtuous as a healthy breakfast choice.
I think rhubarb is a bit like beetroot or avocado, a very distinct taste and you either love it or hate it. I love it, and it is so easy to grow! Our rhubarb is only about three years old (you shouldn’t harvest from it in the first year), but it is huge! Wrestling the stalks off the plant can be quite hard work (you have to carefully pull and not cut) and the enormous leaves need to be cut off and put straight in the compost bin, as they are poisonous. Unfortunately, people have been poisoned after eating the leaves. This was a particular problem during the First World War when the leaves were mistakenly recommended as a food source!
Rhubarb is such an easy thing to grow and you get so much back from it and I, for one, like its rather exuberant appearance. Botanically, rhubarb is a vegetable but it is treated as a fruit, despite its tart flavour, you really can’t eat it raw and must add sugar. It goes well with ginger and strawberries… as well as custard and cream! And let’s be honest – is there anything more wonderful than a rhubarb crumble? Do you like rhubarb? If so, what do you make with it? Do share!
Rhubarb grows in two crops, the first arrives early in the year and is ‘forced’, or grown under pots, or those lovely tall terracotta forcers made especially for the job. The ‘rhubarb triangle’ around Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford is renowned for its production of delicate forced rhubarb, grown by candlelight inside sheds… I saw a TV programme on it once – fascinating! You can read more about it here.
Forced rhubarb is a lovely pale pink, with lime green leaves, and it is the more tender and delicately flavoured of the two crops. The second, called main crop rhubarb, arrives in the spring and is grown outdoors and is what most of us have sprouting in our gardens. Its stalks are a deeper red, tinged with green, and its leaves a brighter green. It has a more intense flavour and a more robust texture than the forced crop.
Rhubarb is a fruit (or vegetable!) that has many health claims attributed to it. As ever, I think we have to take some of these with a pinch of salt – or spoonful of sugar in this case! Rhubarb is packed with minerals, vitamins, organic compounds, and other nutrients that make it a good healthy option. Some of these components include dietary fibre, protein, vitamin C, vitamin K, B complex vitamins, calcium, potassium, manganese, and magnesium. Every serving of rhubarb provides 45% of the daily value in vitamin K, which supports healthy bone growth and can limit neuronal damage in the brain.
And if you’ve ever wondered why we use the term ‘Rhubarb rhubarb’… it goes back to 1852, when the theatre company of English actor Charles at the Princess’s Theatre, London would say the word rhubarb repetitively to mimic the sound of indistinct conversation in any crowd scenes, the word having been chosen because it does not have harsh-sounding consonants or clear vowels. So there you have it!