On a cold, dreary day in January, as I was walking back home from my allotment having stared for too long at the brown and black earth and the grey sky, I heard that my local grocers had “got in” some Yorkshire forced rhubarb. This news gave me the same feeling I used to get when I was a child and A-ha had a new single out: I just had to go and get it. Thinking back to the 1980s, rhubarb, like A-ha, was definitely not cool. The pink and green stemmed veg was obliterated into mush in too many school dinners. A-ha were popular but they weren’t The Smiths. Yet now – and I think I can say the same about the Norwegian trio – rhubarb is definitely cool.
If a vegetable could get its leg over the trend for vintage and all things retro, it would be this one: pink shoots and ruffled leaves in late winter, like the brightly-coloured flag on a herald’s trumpet announcing spring is coming, then the showiness of its crown in the summer, and finally its sweet and sourness in a crumble. I love it to pieces, literally. Because forced rhubarb is now everywhere in markets and shops, because it’s starting to grow at the allotment, and because you can plant new crowns or divide old ones now, I am making it my Star of the Week.
Like many types of perennial veg, rhubarb is incredibly easy to grow. Plant crowns in winter into soil that has been refreshed with rotted manure. Although they are usually supplied in pots so in theory could be planted any time, it is best to transplant when they are dormant. Dump plenty of rotted manure or compost around the crown (and redo this every winter as it grows) and then do nothing for an entire year. I am sorry about this, but pulling stalks from a newly-planted rhubarb crown will put too much strain on it and it will give up after one season. If you want a few years from your plant, start picking the following year.
You can pull the stalks from March until July – any harvest after this will exhaust the plant and it might not crop well the following year. If you want earlier rhubarb, like the candy floss-coloured sticks from Yorkshire that turn almost white when you cook them, place a forcing jar – or an upturned pot with the holes covered – over the crown in December, and if it’s cold add plenty of straw around the base to get it going. Forcing will reward you with plenty of early pinkness but it will also exhaust the plant, so once you’ve had your fun leave it to grow for the rest of the season.
Harvest the sticks by pulling from the base (rather than cutting) and remember to only cook the stalks, as the leaves are poisonous. After several years, if the crown becomes unproductive or starts growing a flower stalk, lift the entire plant in the winter and slice the edge of a spade through the middle, making sure there are roots and one or more shoots in each half, then replant them at least a metre apart.
I have five rhubarb crowns: three are unidentified varieties that I found when I took over Plot 35a and divided one overgrown clump; a fourth called ‘Timperley Early’ which can be forced – although I’ve left mine to grow naturally; and a fifth which I have planted this winter and is from Ashridge Nurseries. The variety is ‘Livingstone’ and it is “daylight neutral”, meaning that you can cut it in spring, just like other varieties, but you can also cut it again in autumn and it will not suffer. I am going to trial this variety and will report back in the autumn.
In late winter and spring, while the allotmenteer or gardener has to wait months to harvest fruit for pies and puddings, rhubarb can hold court in the kitchen, providing weeks of sweet filling for desserts. Rhubarb is strictly a vegetable, but we treat it like a fruit.
Stewing rhubarb until it reduces to a pinky-brown mush is a waste of a good crop. To prepare for most rhubarb dishes, wash the sticks and remove the leaves. Chop the sticks into pieces 1 to 2 inches long. To ensure they retain their shape and firmness in a crumble or pie, place them evenly in an oven dish, sprinkle brown sugar on top and for extra flavour, add grated orange zest, freshly squeezed orange juice, grated ginger or star anise to the dish.
Cook the rhubarb at gas mark 3 for half an hour, until the sugar has dissolved and softened the rhubarb chunks, but not too much – they should still be firm at this point. If making a crumble, add the rhubarb mix to a suitable dish and leave to cool. Make a crumble topping by rubbing together 200g plain flour with 100g butter, then add 50g sugar, either caster or soft brown and mix well. Add a layer of crumble to the rhubarb and cook for 30 minutes at gas mark 5.