The Sweetest Rhubarb Is Forced Inside a Pitch-Dark Shed

In West Yorkshire, "forcing" rhubarb allows the plant to develop outside before it is dug up and placed in a lightless building for the later stages of its life, where it grows so rapidly that you can hear it squeak and pop.

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Feb 27 2015, 6:00pm

Photo via Flickr user doctorow

It's a proven laxative, was thought to cure venereal disease in the dark ages of medicine, and allegedly features in ancient Zoroastrian artwork as one of three lifeforms created by God at the beginning of the universe.

Rhubarb's history, which stretches back to 2700 BC, is fascinating and somewhat unexpected. Its proper name, rheum rhabarbarum, is derived from a combination of the river Rha (now known as the Volga) in Siberia, where it was first discovered, and barbarum, the region which was outside the Roman Empire and therefore populated by barbarians.

The forcing method allows the plant to develop outside before it is dug up and placed in a lightless building for the later stages of its life, where it grows so rapidly that you can hear it squeak and pop.

Despite being around for millennia, people began cultivating the root for its taste, rather than healing abilities, only relatively recently. During the 1800s, the people of England's biggest county, Yorkshire, decided to start growing the curious crop in pitch-dark sheds—a process known as "forcing."

Discovered purely by accident, the idea is simple. Rhubarb requires temperatures of less than 5º Celsius/41º Fahrenheit to emerge from dormancy, and then below 24º Celcius/75.2º Fahrenheit for significant growth. The forcing method allows the plant to develop outside for two years, so it can take in energy through photosynthesis. It's then dug up and placed in a lightless building for the later stages of its life, where it grows so rapidly that you can hear it squeak and pop. This results in far more tender, flavorsome varieties, although it seems slightly unfair—like a vegan version of veal. Nevertheless, the product is prized by some of the finest chefs on the planet.

The area between Leeds, Wakefield, and Bradford in West Yorkshire, is known as the Rhubarb Triangle and is regarded as the centre of this world. Forced produce from farms here has been awarded the coveted EEC PDO status—Protected Designation of Origin—hat guarantees that food has been produced using traditional methods in a location with a long history of producing that food.

Geograph-2289825-by-Alan-Murray-Rust

Photo via Wikimedia Commons/Alan Murray Rust.

In Wakefield, there's even an annual Food, Drink and Rhubarb Festival, with rhubarb cookery masterclasses, rhubarb sausages, rhubarb cocktails, rhubarb street performers (best not to ask), and so many more references to the word "rhubarb" it begins to get a bit much. Needless to say, people are proud of their rhubarb in this neck of the woods, and nobody more so than Janet Oldroyd.

Her family boast five generations of grower history, and she's the woman responsible for Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb being awarded the PDO label. Her involvement in the industry was more coincidental than all that sounds, though. A former medical scientist at St. James's University Hospital in Leeds, she left her career and joined the home-grown business for more flexibility.

"My great-grandfather came up here in the 1930s," Oldroyd tells me. "He was quite a prosperous fruit grower in the south of England, and he lost everything during the Depression. His daughter had married a vicar in Yorkshire, and had her own fruit and veg shop in the centre of Wakefield. So he came up to grow produce for her because she complained she couldn't source the produce she remembered as a child, particularly strawberries."

Oldroyd's great-grandfather soon rented a farm, and started producing for his daughter and other green grocers. "Then his son moved up, with his little boy—my father, who used to tell me about looking behind 'the secret door,' into the rhubarb shed," she says. "My great-grandfather knew nothing about growing rhubarb when he arrived in Yorkshire, but he met a grower and they basically swapped secrets."

At its peak, circa 1939, forced rhubarb was being grown on some 200 farms in the area. Today the number of producers has dwindled to a mere handful.

When Oldroyd's father was taken through that secret door and saw the rhubarb growing in the dark, he gasped. "Many people do," she says. "At that point he instantly knew that he wanted to be a rhubarb grower. He dedicated his life to rhubarb and ensuring the local industry survived when things were difficult. He came through the worst of the times, really."

Those bad days were a direct result of the rise in imports that followed World War II. In the 1950s, the global food trade opened up on a huge scale, giving people access to whatever they wanted to eat. The sudden ability to get ahold of exotic produce meant the likes of rhubarb fell off the radar, with dire consequences for Yorkshire.

At its peak, circa 1939, forced rhubarb was being grown on some 200 farms in the area, which shipped 200 tonnes of rhubarb every day. Most was destined for London, other regions of the UK, and continental Europe—a journey made easy thanks to the rhubarb express rail service, a specially commissioned train that would literally be teeming with forced rhubarb. Today the number of producers has dwindled to a mere handful.

Despite times changing, the process of forcing rhubarb hasn't. At the Oldroyd's farm, for example, everything is still done by hand, using bespoke tools made on site. Heavy machinery, or even a standard scythe, would be too cumbersome for the delicate plant. It's a labour of love, and their dedication is once again paying off as the industry has turned an economic corner.

Now that rhubarb is back in fashion in a big way, the Oldroyd farm even runs rhubarb tours from January to March. I visited during February—on the weekend of the Wakefield Food, Drink and Rhubarb Festival—to find attendees arriving by the coach-load, with numbers so high I struggled to fit in the fabled rhubarb shed. This profitable sideline isn't the only difference between the eras, either.

"Originally they were forcing rhubarb in a shed where chickens were also kept above. So the rhubarb was kept warm from the chickens, and also because the shed was heated the chickens were kept warm from the rhubarb," Oldroyd notes. "Obviously you couldn't do that now at all, due to health and safety and the fact it wasn't sustainable."

Up until this year, Oldroyd's farm used propane gas to heat the sheds, but the price of fuel has been a limiting factor. "It has come back down again, only by a few pence, but it all helps," she says. "I'm sure that once Russia gets its act together and stops playing silly beggars it will start to go back up again."

It's another case of the realities of the rhubarb industry reflecting developments of the era. And there's more to worry about than Putin's plans, whatever they may be. This year the Oldroyd's estimate they have lost 50 percent of their yield due to weather conditions. That's bad for business now, and in years to come, temperatures may have more adverse effects on their profits.

"In terms of the future," Oldroyd says, "you get people coming in and saying, 'If things carry on as they are, then global warming will ruin things.' The conditions rhubarb liked in Siberia are similar to here. But things are getting milder, spring is starting earlier."

Oldroyd isn't about to move north to seek cooler climates, however, because the soil isn't right. "That means we may have to kink and adjust the production slightly for modern times," she says. "At the moment, horses have been replaced by tractors. That's the only real alteration that's happened here, but that may not be the case in a few years time."