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. I used to marvel at the magnificent Giant Rhubarb (Gunnera manicata) that grows in the Sub-Tropical Gardens in Abbotsbury, Dorset – sadly closed for the time being thanks to Covid-19. 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 late 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".
As a relatively recent rhubarb convert, I have discovered the secret to a successful compôte (with or without custard) is to submerge chunks of rhubarb into a bubbling hot sugar syrup for just 30 seconds, rather than stewing it to shreds. Drain into a bowl then pour the syrup back into the pan. Boil for 5 minutes until the bubbles look large and sticky, then pour over the rhubarb and leave to cool.
Even more delectable is rhubarb paired with star anise in a stunning pink
Rhubarb Tart with Star Anise and Orange. Crisp pastry and sticky caramelised rhubarb perfumed with anise and orange zest make a superb culinary combination.
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, February 2021