Apply some force – rhubarb

Apply some force - rhubarb

This photo of me covering up my rhubarb crown with a large pot was taken on the allotment today.

The reason I was covering up the rhubarb crown was to exclude the light, which forces young, tender shoots to grow upwards. In the gardening world we call it ‘forcing’. The bright red stems taste much sweeter and more flavoursome than when grown in normal conditions. The crowns can be covered up with posh clay forcing pots, but I prefer to use an upturned dustbin or large pot. The usual time for forcing is about now, but in Yorkshire they have started earlier in their commercial forcing sheds, and stems are just coming available to chefs in the market gardens now. The technique of forcing rhubarb into early growth was allegedly discovered at the Chelsea Physic garden in 1817 when somebody accidentally covered a dormant crown with soil.  A few weeks later, when the soil was uncovered it revealed these delicious blanched stems, that were sweeter, redder and better flavoured than when grown under usual conditions. The technique of forcing rhubarb was born. However it wasn’t until the 1870s that people started growing them commercially, by taking the crowns inside and growing them in the dark in warm forcing sheds. The area that came synonymous with this technique is between Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford and is known as the Yorkshire rhubarb triangle.

A treat for Autumn too.(Livingstone – photo above – will produce stems into Autumn – haven’t tried it yet)

I love rhubarb! Just the perfect amount of acidity and sharpness to cut through the sweetness of crumble and custard, yet bursting with fruit flavours (okay, veg flavours, but that doesn’t sound as nice). Until now it has always been something I’ve only been able to enjoy from early springtime until mid July. However, thanks to a new variety called ‘Livingstone’ it is now possible to keep harvesting right through until autumn. This new strain has had its summer dormancy eliminated, which causes conventional varieties to stop producing stems in mid summer.  Now it is possible to combine rhubarb with autumn fruits such as apple and blackberry to create amazing new seasonal combinations of dessert!

With Yorkshire producing forced rhubarb through winter, and Livingstone producing stems in autumn, it really does seem that rhubarb isn’t just a spring treat. It is becoming an ingredient for ‘all seasons’.

Simon Akeroyd

Simon Akeroyd is the author of 30 gardening books. He also writes for gardening magazines and newspapers. His first book Shrubs and Small Trees was published in 2008, and he publishes two or three books a year.