At David Westwood's rhubarb farms in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, the picking process is as enchanting as the fruit itself. Find out why!
Rhubarb is probably the prettiest crop grown underground. After a long spell - between eighteen months and two years – underground, its bright pink stalks push upwards, out of the earth and towards the sun, under a canopy of green leaves.
Fairy-tale picking process
At David Westwood’s rhubarb farms in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, the picking process is as enchanting as the fruit itself. Under cover of darkness, David leads his group of pickers to his rhubarb sheds, each carrying a single candle held aloft on a stake.
The candles do more than guide the pickers’ path. Once inside the dark sheds, where the rhubarb is kept at a temperature of 13C, the naked flames perform a clever trick. Each stalk of rhubarb, after two weeks in the pitch black environment, is desperate to glimpse even the faintest spot of light. On the promise of candlelight, the stalks force their way up out of their earthy nest.
“It’s like a fairyland,” says David. “If you stand very still in the darkness, you can actually hear the rhubarb come through the cover on the stalk and pop!”
Why do we call it ‘forced’ rhubarb?
This is how forced rhubarb got its name. It spends its first few years outside underground, where David treats it with a small amount of weed control, but the final few weeks in the shed are kept chemical-free.
Yorkshire’s sooty soil
Forced rhubarb is grown in Yorkshire’s world-famous rhubarb triangle, an area between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield which once produced 90% of the world’s rhubarb.
“The rhubarb grows well here because of the nutrients in the soil,” explains David. “It likes a lot of sulphur, and it’s because of the original industry and the soot from the chimneys – which is basically sulphur – that it grows so well around here.”
Rhubarb was not originally Yorkshire born and bred. It came to Britain via ancient Chinese trading routes in the Victorian era.
But it was quickly assimilated into our farms and allotments, as much for its hardy structure as its vibrant colour and sweet taste. (David’s forced rhubarb is thinner and sweeter than non-forced rhubarb, which is often the greener, thicker stalks, that taste sharper and more sour.)
When the trade routes failed and supply dried up, the method for forcing rhubarb was discovered by chance. As Westwood tells it, someone threw an old crown of rhubarb onto a pile of muck in a stable. The hot manure covered the plant. Just a few weeks later the stable boy noticed pink stalks pushing through the muck.
And so the rhubarb triangle was born. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy sweet rhubarb from February before the summer crop arrives on shelves.
Struggling to survive
Still, the Westwoods are lucky to have held onto their farms. When air-freighting exotic produce into the UK all year round became the norm, rhubarb became a costly extravagance and only a dozen or so producers out of 200 remain in Yorkshire.
David himself was close to giving up, but he stuck it out and now has 62 years in the business – he started picking aged 11. David’s great great-grandfather and great great-uncle were some of those early Victorian growers. The family now has four farms and David’s son Jonathan and daughter Sarah-Elizabeth help with the work.
EU protected status
Forced rhubarb is also known as champagne rhubarb, and producers campaign to promote the forced stuff with this fancy name to explain why it is so special and costly. Just heating the sheds cost David £10,000 in November alone. In 2010, Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb was awarded EU protected name status.
Rhubarb sales go through the roof
But things are improving for David Westwood, because rhubarb sales are shooting through the roof as briskly and surely as his stalks break through their canopy. David provides Morrisons supermarkets with rhubarb, a relationship going back 30 years, and it sold half a million packs of rhubarb – 250 tonnes – in 2010, compared to 80,000 packs in 2009.
That’s a huge increase, and Morrisons predicts 600,000 packs will be sold in 2011.
The Delia effect
Last year’s rhubarb stampede was caused by the “Delia effect”, when Waitrose, also supplied by David Westwood, publicised a recipe by Delia for Rhubarb Crème Brulée.
Four days after the recipe was revealed, Waitrose had sold as much rhubarb as it expected to in 14 weeks. It had to import emergency supplies from Europe, which didn’t go down well with the Yorkshire Growers Association.
How to eat it
Hopefully this year the shops will be prepared for our frenzy. David eats it two or three times a week. “I like my crumbles and pies,” he says. No doubt a renewed interest in classic puddings, pies and crumbles is helping sales along. For example, Antony Worrall Thompson recently shared his recipe for baked apples with rhubarb crumple right here on lovefood.com, celebrating the other great British seasonal produce around at the moment: the Bramley apple.
If you want a lighter dish, bake the rhubarb with orange zest, a cup of juice and grated ginger, and fold into a fool with yoghurt or cream. Here at lovefood.com, we recommend Rachel Green’s rhubarb and stem ginger fool and Marcus Eaves’ baked Alaska.
Rhubarb is also good with savoury dishes. Some people even say it is a fruit/veg hybrid, because you can’t eat it raw – the leaves are poisonous and the stalks too bitter. It goes very well with fish. Try this Rhubarb Butter Sauce from Riverford or Mackerel with Rhubarb and Cider from Abel and Cole.
Rhubarb was said to be Queen Victoria’s favourite fruit. It will take a while for David Westwood and his fellow Yorkshire triangle growers to flourish as they did in Victorian times. But for now, rhubarb is certainly enjoying its moment in the spotlight.
Get in touch with David Westwood
To get in touch with David, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01924 822314
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