Our guide to Forced Yorkshire Rhubarb
A Victorian Practice: past and present
You might be forgiven if you believed time travel exists in West Yorkshire. If one wandered seamlessly across the fields between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell and stumbled across some peculiar, creaking sheds, it would only be natural to question your imagination. Are those farmers really entering these sheds with burning candlesticks? Either that or you've just interrupted the West Yorkshire yoga & meditation society gathering for a guided meditation with lots of, wait what... rhubarb?
Well, there is a very practical and rather scientific reason for the burning candlesticks. You haven't stepped directly back in time in West Yorkshire, but you are witnessing the very same practice Victorian farmers introduced into agriculture nearly 150 years ago.
There is a saying in Yorkshire that goes I could eat an oven door if it were buttered. It means, and I know the feeling all too well, I'm absolutely starving! While our supermarkets are now laden with 'fresh' produce all year round, step back a few years and this wasn't the case. People were genuinely starving and, in the winter, it was difficult to produce fresh vegetables. This is where the magic of forced rhubarb begins.
Using cheap coal from the surrounding mines, farmers in West Yorkshire created the forcing sheds. Here's how it works: the rhubarb is grown outside for 2 years, exposing it to the seasons - warm summers and frosty winters. The crop is then pulled out of the ground in November, and placed into beds within the forcing sheds. They are given heat from the coal and water to survive.
So why is it grown in the dark? Well, this is where it gets clever: by placing it in complete darkness, the rhubarb reaches out in search of light which, of course, it will never find. The result is long and straight rhubarb; its stalk bright pink and its crown acid yellow as it avoids photosynthesising. The forcing process essentially imitates spring: in the dark the rhubarb rises and searches for light. In doing so, the crop is harvestable in January, February and March, at a time of year when fresh vegetables in the U.K are scarce.
Clever, very clever!
Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb: a modern delicacy
By the early 20th Century, forced rhubarb was in bountiful supply. Hundreds of farmers produced hundreds-of-thousands of rhubarb and it was a mainstay and reliable crop during the winter months.
But, as we know, times change. After the war, the demand for housing continued to accelerate and by the late 1960s, the majority of the land that once housed the forcing sheds had been sold to build housing. The hundreds of farmers soon became just a handful, and the regularity of forced rhubarb almost entirely disappeared from the British food scene.
Of course, these days forced rhubarb is considered by many in the British culinary scene to be a linchpin ingredient during the early months of the calendar year. Step in to any high-end British restaurant that champions British produce during these months and you'll stand a good chance of seeing it on their menu.
While it may be considered a delicacy for its rarity in supply and largely expensive labour costs, we regard it as a delicacy for so much more. This ingredient is a star. Capable of being the main character. Take our Forced Yorkshire Rhubarb Jam - it needs little support. We simply make our forced rhubarb jam with just a little sugar. The sugar accentuates the rhubarb into a floral, delicate and slightly tart centrepiece - delicious even when simply served with toasted bread.
The jam is an exceptional addition to baked goods. Below, our very own Margo flavoured her Drożdźówki (a Polish sweet-roll) with lashings of forced rhubarb jam.
There's a whole host of ways to use forced rhubarb in pastries and desserts. At the end of the month, Sky will guide you through making a forced rhubarb and custard tart using our own jam.
But this ingredient can enhance meats and fish. Our friends at Hill & Szrok have partnered crisp, fatty roasted pork belly with forced rhubarb. Writing for The Guardian, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall describes how the tartness of forced rhubarb compliments oily fish as he shares his recipe for Oatmeal-coated Mackerel with Rhubarb.
Needless to say, forced rhubarb is an extremely useful and tasty ingredient to keep in your arsenal during the inaugural months of the year. Its delicate, slightly tart notes can elevate many dishes, not to mention that its stunning, bright-pink appearance takes the serving plate to almost dreamlike levels of visual pleasure.
The Future of Forced Rhubarb
While contemporary farming is capable of spectacular things, there's a good chance forced rhubarb will soon become a candy-pink, nostalgia-ridden memory of a previous time. The fact is, while it is a delicacy, the demand for forced rhubarb is uncompetitive alongside other more popular fruits and vegetables.
The process of farming forced rhubarb is already highly laborious and expensive. Heating the beds and paying workers to manually rip the stems from their roots costs the farmers a fair whack, which is why they charge a reasonably high-fee for customer purchases.
During the rhubarbs early years growing outside, it is essential that the vegetable is subject to sub-zero temperatures and frost.
So, warmer winters? Rising energy prices? Can't be good news. Do the farmers pay even more to give the vegetables necessary frosting? That is all dependent on the demand. But the demand should remain: it is beautiful, delicious and good for you (excellent levels of oxalic acid which is your best friend when it comes to detoxing).
Either way, while it's here, we will continue to preserve its legacy for as long as we can.
Thank you for reading! As mentioned, at the end of this month (in the next instalment of The Tip Jar) Sky will offer her recipe for a delicious Forced Rhubarb and Custard Tart, using our very own jam, which you can purchase by clicking here.
Best wishes, Sky, Kai & the England Preserves team.