Rhubarb is one of those foods that you either like a lot or you don’t like much at all. While it may not be as popular as it used to be (probably because we have so many other tempting fruits and vegetables from foreign shores to eat nowadays) it is still a large part of the West Yorkshire economy – to the extent that there’s a part of the country long known as the Rhubarb Triangle, which covers the area between the towns of Wakefield, Leeds and Morley. Here rhubarb is “forced”, that is grown in the dark to enhance the flavour.
Indeed, such is the repute of the region’s rhubarb that Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb has been awarded “Protected Designation of Origin” status by the European Commission, which puts it in the same category as Champagne, Parma ham, Camembert cheese and another fine Yorkshire product, Swaledale cheese (Wensleydale cheese is in the early stages of the PDO process).
Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb is grown in long, low, heated sheds where age-old rituals of growing and harvesting rhubarb are carried out in the dark over the cold and gloomy winter nights. It’s said that the rhubarb has to be picked by candlelight – otherwise the plants grow more slowly or stop growing altogether. Forced rhubarb is sweeter and the stems are thinner and tenderer.
The leaves of rhubarb are toxic (they contain oxalic acid) but the stems contain anthocynanins – substances present in many red skinned fruits and vegetables (grapes, apples, etc) that are thought to have medically beneficial effects in relation to:
•ageing and neurological diseases
Rhubarb originally comes from Siberia and the Russian/Chinese border. It’s a member of the dock family of plants and its name means “foreign rhubarb”, which is somewhat circular, but there you are.
It was first used primarily as a medicine (the roots have been used for their laxative properties for over 5,000 years). It was also used as a dieting aid. Its use as a food only really started once sugar became affordable in the 17th century.
Now rhubarb is used as fruit – stewed with custard or in a pie or crumble – for jams. preserves and sauces, and as a flavouring in a variety of foods and sweets.
Rhubarb is so highly regarded in Yorkshire that Wakefield Council erected a sculpture depicting the plant in Holmfield Park in 2005.
The Council also hold an annual festival to celebrate it. The Wakefield Annual Food, Drink and Rhubarb Festival is held every February – and this year’s event takes place on Friday 25 and Saturday 26 February. This year’s Rhubarb Festival includes cookery demonstrations, a Deliciously Yorkshire market, street entertainment, tours, walks, and a visit to local rhubarb growers.
It’s probably one of the most unusual family-friendly occasions in the calendar.
If you’re planning to attend and need Yorkshire accommodation, like Yorkshire hotels or Yorkshire bed and breakfast, check out the many properties on Hello Yorkshire.
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