Thursday, 8 March 2018

A Trip to the Rhubarb Triangle

A look inside the Rhubarb sheds.....

Last week, despite weather warnings of the 'Beast from the East', I braved the snow and gale-force winds, and headed North to visit Wakefield, part of the Yorkshire 'Rhubarb Triangle', and  conveniently also home to a great friend of mine. Visiting the forced rhubarb sheds has always been on my bucket list, and it transpired that my friends-parents-friends are one of the few remaining true Yorkshire forced rhubarb farmers left. They very kindly allowed me to visit their farm, D Westwood and Son.

Visiting any farm and seeing quality produce being grown or reared, is something I delight in doing. But there's something about the forced rhubarb process that just seems completely magical to me. Perhaps it's because the process itself is somewhat secretive; it being grown in blacked-out sheds, that few can visit, for fear of light damaging the crop. Any more than ten minutes of light is enough to ruin the forcing process. The light bulbs you can see in my images were screwed in especially for our visit- the farmers won't risk leaving them in there in case someone accidentally leaves the lights on!

Or perhaps it's the technicalities of  it. As Jonty (6th generation farmer at D Westwood and Son) explained to me, the process is incredibly precise, with the plant roots or crowns firstly being planted outdoors in fields, where it grows for more than two years. At the start of it's third winter outside, the farmers will wait until the ground has reached a certain freezing temperature, usually when then first frost hits (there's a special thermometer to measure this). It is then up-rooted, and re-planted in the purpose-built sheds by hand. When it's time to harvest, this process is also done by hand, and in candlelight, to avoid damaging the rhubarb at this stage. It ain't easy work producing this stuff, but it's totally worth it!

The alien-like neon green leaves are actually poisonous, so avoid eating them!  

I'm not going to try and do a rhubarb history lesson here, because frankly I'm no expert. But, I was interested to learn that the process of forcing rhubarb - which is growing it in the darkness to produce the sweet-flavoured, bright candy cane sticks - was originally invented in the Chelsea Physic Gardens in London. It became a phenomenon in the Yorkshire areas of Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell during the War, when there were supposedly around 200 farms producing it, due to the ideal conditions and high demand for the stuff.

Today there's only 9 farms producing Yorkshire forced rhubarb, so I feel privileged to be able to visit a farm first hand, and learn about the process myself. Yorkshire forced rhubarb was also given PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status relatively recently in 2010. This means it can only be sold as Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb, if it's grown from within the Rhubarb Triangle. That's a real testament to a quality product, that's been grown using these ancient methods by generations of Yorkshire farmers. Now I know the effort that goes into it producing it, I have a whole new appreciation for it myself, although I didn't really need converting.

When we got back to the house, we snacked on sticks of newly-cut raw rhubarb, dipped in a little sugar, before turning the rest into a winning crumble. It was such a joy to cook and eat the freshest rhubarb I'll probably ever get my hands on, especially after seeing it growing in the ground just moments before. You can find the recipe for our crumble below, if you'd like to have a go yourself. Just make sure you use Yorkshire forced rhubarb- preferably from Jonty's farm!

Pleased as punch with my harvest! 

Proper Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb Crumble

Because why mess around with such a wonderful raw product? Thank you to Catherine Clark (my friends Mum) for the top crumble recipe- the addition of demerara sugar gives it a wonderful toffee chewiness!

NB. When poaching the rhubarb in step 1, the quantity of sugar will really depend on how sweet the rhubarb you have is initially (it can vary drastically). You can always have a nibble of it raw and if it's lovely and sweet, as Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb is, you really don't need much sugar!

Serves 6 - will make one large crumble, or 2 smaller ones.

600g Yorkshire forced rhubarb, washed and leaves removed
Approx 1 tbsp caster sugar
230g flour
170g butter, cubed at room temperature.
90g demerara sugar
90g caster sugar

1. Preheat oven to 200 C.

2. Chop the rhubarb into 3 inch pieces and place in a sauce pan with the 1 tbsp of caster sugar. Heat on low to medium, and cook for around 10 minutes until the rhubarb is soft, but still holding it's shape (remember it will continue to cook in the oven, so don't over do it). If it looks dry at all, splash a little water into the pan, but rhubarb itself has a high water content, so you shouldn't really need to add much liquid.

3. Spoon the rhubarb into the bottom of your chosen crumble dish, and allow to cool while you make the crumble.

4. In a bowl, mix the flour and sugars, and then add in the cubes of butter. Rub together with the tips of your fingers to create a rough bread crumb consistency (any lumps will add texture!).

5. Spoon the crumble mix generously over your rhubarb. I personally like a crumble-to-rhubarb ratio of around 50:50. Definitely don't skimp on the crumble.

6. Bake in the oven for 30-35 mins, until the top is lightly golden and crisp.

7. Serve hot with cold cream or custard.

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