Monday, 24 January 2011

Rhubarb Triangle

Forced Yorkshire Rhubarb

According to Jane Grigson, only pink rhubarb is worth eating, and in general I agree.  She had bad memories of being made to eat 'green' rhubarb as it was "good for you", but my first encounter with the fruit was clearly kinder.  Even when I was quite small I would pull a stick from the pale heart, cut off the base and poisonous leaf tip, and dip the deep pink fruit into a paper twist of sugar sneaked from the kitchen.  The memory of this wonderful sweet and sour combination is what lingers for me.

I won't get into the argument about whether rhubarb is fruit or vegetable.  What is definite is that it is a native of Siberia.  It was grown for its medicinal properties at least as far back as 2700BC and was thought to be effective in gut, liver and lung problems.  Although rhubarb has been grown in the UK since the 16th century, it wasn't until the early 18th century that it became popular here as a desirable food source rather than a purgative.   The secret of making it palatable to the British was arrived at by accident when gardeners at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London left some roots piled high with garden waste during winter.  By the time they were uncovered, tender roots had pushed through and these were found to be far tastier than the later fruiting rhubarb grown without cover. 

Though this was actually "blanched" rhubarb, it was the starting point for "forced" rhubarb growing which was embraced enthusiastically by growers in Yorkshire and developed into the use of forcing sheds for an early, tastier crop.  So good was the quality that growers in other parts of the country gave up trying to compete.  Today forced rhubarb continues to be grown in a small area around Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield in Yorkshire known as "The Rhubarb Triangle".  One of the oldest growers, and best known, being E Oldroyd & Sons Ltd.  You can even take a tour of the atmospheric candle-lit forcing sheds and experience the popping sounds of buds forging upwards to reach the dim light.  No longer do the "Rhubarb Express" trains to London operate but Oldroyd's forced rhubarb still finds its way to London markets.  By mid-January I am looking out for it at Tony Booth's grocer's arch on Druid Street, Bermondsey and expect to find it into early spring.  Unforced rhubarb then takes over, starting off quite well, though taste and texture are definitely inferior, it becomes quite a different fruit by its mid-summer end.

I haven't tried eating raw rhubarb and sugar since childhood, perhaps I should.  Persian cooking makes use of rhubarb with lamb dishes, and a barely sweetened compote is a good accompaniment to pork, or to cut the oiliness of fish, like mackerel.  These days, if my purchase doesn't make it into a rhubarb and polenta cake, it'll be a sweet compote - the rule is 4 parts fruit to 1 part sugar but you can use a little less sugar with forced.  Rhubarb has a high water content and will collapse into a mush if not cooked sympathetically - see my recipe below.  I'll serve it simply with yoghurt and a spoonful of honey, with a slice of toasted brioche alongside if I have some.  Or maybe folded into lightly whipped cream, or a mix of cream and yogurt, to make a rhubarb fool, enjoyed with a good almond biscuit.  If I have some meringues, preferably slightly chewy ones, and a little cream then it might be a take on Eton Mess like this one.

Rhubarb Mess 
(for 4)

2 egg whites
125g caster sugar
600g pink forced rhubarb
125-150g caster sugar
Half a vanilla pod (optional)
250ml Double Cream
50g sliced, toasted hazelnuts (use folded into the meringue before cooking or sprinkled on top of the Mess)

The Meringue
Heat the oven to 180C.  Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form then add half the sugar gradually, beating until the mixture is firm and fluffy.  Gently fold in the rest of the sugar (and the hazelnuts if using) with a metal spoon.  Place 4 large spoonfuls of the mix on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment.  Place in the oven and immediately turn the heat down to 120C.  Bake for 1 hour then turn the oven off, open the door and leave to go cold.  
The Compote
Heat oven to 160C.  Wash and trim the rhubarb and cut into 1 inch/2cm lengths.  Place in an ovenproof dish.  Add the caster sugar (and half vanilla pod, scraping the seeds in the dish, if using).  Cover with foil and cook for about 45 minutes, stirring gently once.  Check after 40 minutes - the fruit should be soft, yet still holding its shape.  Remove from oven and use a slotted spoon gently place the rhubarb in a bowl.  Pour the juice into a small heavy-bottomed pan, bring it to the boil then simmer until the juice is reduced by half.  Cool and stir the thickened juice gently into the fruit.  The compote will keep in the fridge, covered, for 5-6 days if necessary.
The Mess
Lightly whip the cream until just starting to thicken (it's important not to over-whip).  Add the meringue, broken into small and larger pieces, and fold in.  Add the rhubarb compote and fold in very lightly, just enough to get a ripple effect.  Spoon into bowls (and sprinkle toasted sliced hazelnuts over to serve if you haven't used them in the meringues).

Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb has been awarded DOP status.