The first recipes for cooked Rhubarb appeared in the early 1780’s, but as a dessert it was destined to wait another 100 years until Rhubarb growing and eating really took off. In greater part because sugar, its trusty companion, remained an expensive commodity until the end of the 19th Century.
The first cooking Rhubarb was grown by Joseph Myatt and sold commercially at Borough Market, South London in 1810.
Then in the winter of 1815 a happy accident took place – labourers working in Chelsea Physic Garden threw rubble and soil onto a bed of Rhubarb. The following spring when the debris was removed it revealed the long, pink stems of tender forced plants. These findings were reported in the Horticultural Society Journal and it wasn’t long before commercial growers were inspired by the idea.
By the 1880’s forcing had really captured the imagination of a number of growers in West Yorkshire, in an area between Wakefield, Leeds and Bradford now known as the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’.
Several factors combined to make this possible – heavy clay soils, an annual pattern of rainfall, suitable fertilizer, in particular ‘shoddy’ (waste woollen rags from the local textile industry) plus an abundant supply of cheap coal with which to heat the forcing sheds.
Importantly exposing the Rhubarb ‘crowns’ to the frosty weather of West Yorkshire Autumns, followed by 4-6 weeks in the complete darkness of the forcing sheds at a temperature of 26 dec C, induced the plants to produce long stems ranging from soft pink to smooth crimson. Now, as then, the sticks are harvested by candlelight which illuminates only the area being worked on at a given time and avoids photosynthesis turning them green and tough.
Today, although the number of growers is severely reduced since the mid 20th Century, forced Rhubarb is held in high esteem and valued for its beautiful colour, subtle flavour and palate cleansing mix of acidity and sweetness.
In February 2010 Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb was granted Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the European Commission – joining the ranks of Champagne and Parma Ham on a list of Europe’s specially protected foods.
In the same month Wakefield holds an annual Food, Drink and Rhubarb Festival and the Royal Horticultural Society gardens at Harrogate house a permanent national Rhubarb collection.