Rhubarb has always struck me as faintly ludicrous – not just the name but the appearance too. The thrusting stalks and umbrella-like crinkled leaves suggest it might come from a tropical paradise rather than the homely rhubarb patch. That said, the sub-tropical gardens in Abbotsbury, Dorset, are famous for the magnificent Giant Rhubarb (Gunnera manicata) that grows there. The leaf is over 3 metres wide and is said to be 'something of a record'. But I digress. Native to Siberia, domestic rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) has regular-sized leaves and prefers a cool climate.
I particularly like the early forced variety with its shocking-pink stalks and tiny lime-green leaves. A January crop grown in 'the rhubarb triangle' of West Yorkshire, forced rhubarb is painstakingly nurtured in mysterious candle-lit sheds – a long slow process that demands the level of devotion given to fine wine or cheese production. Such is its value that forced rhubarb has Protected Designated Origin (PDO) status, an award given to top-quality products produced only in a designated area, putting it in the same category as Parma ham and champagne.
Unforced outdoor-grown rhubarb arrives in the spring. The stalks are thicker and the colour a glowing deep red tinged with green. As the season progresses, the stalks become increasingly thick and coarse, and the flavour changes from merely sour to excessively so.
Forced or outdoor-grown, rhubarb has suffered from an old-fashioned image that may cause those of a certain age to shudder at best-forgotten memories. As the distinguished author Alan Davidson wrote in The Oxford Companion to Food, "the combination of rhubarb and custard is as irresistible to some as it is off-putting to others".
That said, chefs and food writers are coming up with some tantalising ideas.
I love Raymond Blanc's Rhubarb and Custard from the 'Kew on a Plate' TV programme. He studs tart rhubarb jelly with nuggets of fruit, and tops it with velvety custard, crunchy honeycomb and a shard of rhubarb crisp. All you could possibly wish for in terms of flavour, colour and texture.
As a relatively recent rhubarb convert, I have discovered the secret to a successful rhubarb compôte is to submerge chunks of rhubarb briefly into bubbling hot syrup – spiked with a few star anise pods perhaps – rather than stewing it to shreds. Even more delectable is rhubarb paired with angelica in a stunning pink-tinged Rhubarb and Angelica Sorbet. It goes remarkably well with this fragrant sweet herb – conveniently in season about the same time as outdoor-grown rhubarb.
Moving on to savoury things, I have put rhubarb to good use in mulligatawny soup. It adds splashes of pink to an otherwise beige mixture, and provides the necessary tartness. It is also good with lamb in a Moroccan-style tagine, or whizzed to a pale pink vinaigrette with walnut oil, wine vinegar and seasonings ¬– excellent with hot-smoked trout or salmon.
© Christine McFadden, May 2017