Forced Rhubarb – Growing by Candlelight is a celebration of a British farming method that has created a world renowned food crop.
A visit to the rhubarb forcing sheds near Wakefield in Yorkshire was something I had promised myself for a few years.
As a fellow rhubarb lover, my sister came too. We were both eager to hear the forced rhubarb popping as it grew.
We knew the method for forcing rhubarb in our own gardens. Our grandfather had had terracotta rhubarb forcing pots in his vegetable garden. Mother was more prosaic, possibly due to the quantity of the rhubarb we would eat at her birthday celebrations on February. Large terracotta plant pots were drummed into use as extra forcing pots. Empty of their tender summer planting, they were upturned over dormant rhubarb crowns. The drainage hole covered with a clay roof tile so as to block out the light.
However, this wasn’t always enough. If there were missing buckets over the winter months, they could generally be found in the rhubarb patch, protecting yet another plant from frost and snow and light. And encouraging the formation of delicate tasting ruby pink stems for a February feast.
The trick of forcing rhubarb to produce an early crop was discovered by accident at the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1817. Some rhubarb crowns were by chance covered with soil overwinter. The stems that sprouted up in late winter were growing a couple of months earlier than the rest of the rhubarb plants. The resulting, almost sweet, pink stems provided a treat when there was little fresh food growing in the vegetable garden.
From the banks of the Thames to the Yorkshire forcing sheds may seem a leap geographically. Strictly speaking, this early forced rhubarb was blanched rather than forced. Commercial blanched, or forced rhubarb began with London growers. It was they who lifted the roots, or crowns, to grow on in buildings, where they were able to control the growing conditions more easily.
In the 1870s, rhubarb forcing began in Yorkshire in special forcing sheds. This was the first known instance of sheds being built purely for the production of a rhubarb crop out of season.
Yorkshire is an excellent location for growing rhubarb out of season in this particular fashion. A combination of the cold weather, the water quality and, before tapped water, the high rainfall were prerequisites.
The high rainfall also led to the availability of the third important element in growing forced rhubarb. Nitrogen is one of the three main nutrients required for plant growth, especially for roots. In the rhubarb forcing sheds, nitrogen was provided by shoddy. Shoddy is a waste product of the woollen industry, high in nitrogen. Yorkshire sheep and water gave rise to the Yorkshire woollen industry which in turn, along with the Yorkshire coal fields providng fuel, helped to create the Yorkshire rhubarb farming success.
Being located at a central point in the railway system gave the growers another advantage over any growers who were not London based. And put them on an equal footing with the London forced rhubarb producers as they could provide fresh rhubarb, harvested the day before. Rhubarb express trains, carriages filled with the prime pink stems, would rattle through the night to most area of Britain. But they would particularly race to London overnight, old Covent Garden market their destination. From there Yorkshire rhubarb would travel across the Channel and delight European taste buds.
The forcing sheds for Yorkshire rhubarb are a magical place. The flickering candlelight may on one level send you back to an earlier age before electricity. But it is the life pulsing through the rhubarb crowns and emerging buds that dominates the atmosphere. You walk through row upon row of rhubarb. The candle lit leaves are luminescent in shades of green. A far cry from the coarse dark green foliage at the end of the outdoor rhubarb season.
And the ruby red stems of the rhubarb send your taste buds salivating in anticipation of eating this champagne rhubarb. The undisputed queen of late winter delicacies. The flavour is light years away for the green mush that may have been served up to you as stewed rhubarb.
Then the group of you fall silent. Someone heard a ‘pop’. Then another pop is heard by more of you. And you realise that once you’ve finished ‘oohing’ at the visual delights of the forcing shed, the aural wonder takes over. You’re transfixed, as a petiole bud pushes up from the rhubarb crown next to you and opens with its popping cry of delight.
It feels strange to walk out into soft grey Yorkshire daylight. But there is the opportunity to buy forced rhubarb stems. And you can take your own little bit of Yorkshire rhubarb roots home with you to grow in your vegetable plot. Or maybe in the garden shed?
As for border collies, they’re not allowed in the forcing shed and have to sit in the Plews truck. But they do get fussed by the lovely farm staff whilst their humans are learning about the history and the present of forced rhubarb.
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