With stalks that make incredible pie and can also be used for dye, roots prized for centuries in Chinese medicine and a history which also includes 13th-century transport from Asia to Europe by Marco Polo — and with higher trade values than opium and saffron — it’s a wonder we aren’t more interested in rhubarb. Or are we?
Rhubarb appears in haute cuisine, and it’s always been fashionable in crisps and crumbles, but a recent study estimates our per-capita consumption at just 0.14 kg. To learn more about this underutilized perennial (classed as a vegetable in the UK and as fruit in the US and Canada), I consulted a man who’s supplied rhubarb crowns to gardeners and commercial growers in Nova Scotia for over 30 years.
Charles Keddy produces several varieties at his nursery, including Canada Red, one of the most popular in this country, and Sutton, which was first introduced by Sutton Seeds in 1893.
There are, as it turns out, more than a hundred known rhubarb varietals — some green, some red, and others are a cross. So what does colour have to do with taste?
“Nothing really. Rhubarb is sour, period,” laughs Keddy. “People say some are sweeter than others, and if you have a very delicate palate perhaps you’ll be able to tell, just as some people know the difference between a $7 wine and a $25 bottle.”
The redder the variety, typically the less prolific the plant, says Keddy. “That’s why greener varieties are generally grown for commercial production. A real red variety like Valentine or Ruby might provide two to four pounds per plant, whereas a green like Sutton will yield 10 to 15 pounds.”
“It’s probably the earliest-producing fruit crop, and it’s fairly easy to grow,” he goes on to say. “I heard my grandfather say many times that if you dug it out and threw it in the middle of the driveway it would probably carry on. If it’s in a spot with good drainage it will do well; it won’t like what we call “wet feet” or being saturated most of the time. It likes good sun exposure; put a bit of fertilizer or compost on and it’ll thrive. Throw a bag over your plant in the fall and by the first of May you’ll be picking a bit to make rhubarb sauce, jam, chutney, relish or pie.”
Sweeter, more tender stalks can be produced by a process called “forcing,” which began, by accident, in Britain in 1817, and also has a long history in Canada. “There used to be quite a market for it, but it’s not being done to a great scale here anymore. Back in the 1960s, 1970s and earlier, things like strawberries weren’t available year-round; oranges and bananas were expensive, and people did a lot more baking. They’d dig up the plants in the fall, put them in a barn cellar or warehouse, crowd them in tight, add water, and keep out the light. The process produced a beautiful product — fine, tender, pink stalks. There may be a bit of forcing done by someone going to a farmer’s market these days, but not very much.”
To get the most from your rhubarb, try roasting. Elaine Lemm, author of The Great Book of Rhubarb, recommends roasting rhubarb pieces (approximately three centimetres) in the oven with a few tablespoons of brown sugar and orange juice to preserve colour, intensify flavour and retain shape. Once roasted, use in any recipe calling for stewed rhubarb, or freeze for up to six months.
Rhubarb may be somewhat overlooked these days, but don’t be surprised to see it on the world stage this summer: when London mayor Boris Johnson officially opened the 2012 Olympic Summer Games velodrome, he announced that the rosy hue of the building’s exterior was achieved by “lovingly rubbing it with rhubarb juice.” Yummy.