May 01 2004


This vegetable, served as fruit pudding, turning up in a variety of terrible guises for years and years in guest houses and school dinners across the country, has led me on a quite remarkable route. As I tried to trace a little of our culinary connection to it, rhubarb has taken me back through time unbelievably to where I began this entry, that is Iraq. When the capital of the Arab world moved from Damascus to Baghdad in A.D.763, the Round City, Abode of Peace, situated in the central point of the Middle East between the Euphrates and the Tigress, became the centre of trade with the East. Traders headed East from Baghdad for all manor of goods; honey, quince, saffron, salt, pomegranates, quail. Earliest records of Rhubarb describe how it was brought back from China together with cinnamon. Rheum officialis was extremely important in ancient medicine.

It was a long time before the culinary use of rhubarb became wide spread. Around about 1777 an apothecary from Banbury cultivated Rheum Rhaponticum from seed brought from Russia in 1762. He produced “ a drug of excellent quality” which was sold as the genuine rhubarb “by men dressed up as Turks”! And more years passed until the 19th Century when rhubarb entered our diet. Elisa Acton tells us how to make a compote of rhubarb, a Curates pudding and gives some ather strict instructions on the correct manner to make a rhubarb meringue. “Common cooks sometimes fail entirely in very light preparations from not understanding this extremely easy process……..”

Our dessert rhubarb, rheum cultorum is derived from Chinese rhubarb but milder. The only time I think it is worth using is when it is young and tender. I allow mine to grow up through an old terracotta drain pipe forcing long tender pale pink stems. I pick it all while it’s young and freeze it for use through the summer. The later tough stems are strong tasting and stringy but the flowers are majestic and a wonderfully decorative addition to the vegetable garden. It is as well to mention that the leaves of rhubarb are poisonous and contain oxalic acid so stick to the stems!

Jane Grigson in her wonderful Fruit Book struggles with nanny’s “good for you Rhubarb” puddings, thick clods of Birds custard, pies thickened with flour to take up the juice and other horrors of childhood! Having said that, she lists many quite delicious recipes! My favourite rhubarb quote from her book is for Spring Soup from Mrs Lowinsky’s menu to impress the publisher. Mrs Lowinsky’s two books “Lovely Food” and “More Lovely Food” were published in 1931 and 1935. Her advice to readers also wishing to be published is as follows: “Dinner to impress your publisher and make him offer ridiculous sums for the privilege of printing your next book. Try to keep off the controversial subjects such as politics, sex, or religion but let him see that he can still shock you. Attend to the wine.” Marvellous.

For her influential Spring Soup you will need an amazing 48 sticks of rhubarb, onions carrot, chopped ham, butter, chicken stock, breadcrumbs ,salt, pepper, sugar and fried croutons to garnish. Proceed in the usual way for soup. See recipes in Paint, Pigs, Primroses… and Soup.

Nathalie Hambro (Particular Delights) suggests Rhubarb Salad with mint. Marinade the young chopped stems in brown sugar for an hour then toss in a vinaigrette dressing with plenty of fresh mint and a scattering of Rosemary flowers.

A light simple Rhubarb Fool is hard to beat on a mild Spring evening. Just poach young stems in a little orange juice and sugar. Allow to cool and fold in whipped cream. Serve chilled in individual glass pots.

Rhubarb Flan. Make a sweet pastry base with a pate sucre*, fill it with pouched rhubarb and cover with a lemon cream filling. Take 2 egg yolks, 2oz/50g caster sugar, 3 fl oz/70ml double cream and the zest of ½ a lemon. Place the sugar and eggs in a bowl over a pan of gently boiling water and whisk till thick and double in volume. Allow to cool. Mix in the cream and lemon zest and cover the rhubarb in the pastry case with the mixture. Bake for 20-25 minutes at 190c , 375F or Gas 5. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with icing sugar. Serve warm or cold.

*Pate Sucre used to be made by hand on a marble slab gradually drawing the ingredients together. Now we have food processors!

Whizz 200g plain flour, 100g soft butter, 75g caster sugar and three egg yolks in the processor, wrap in cling film and chill for at least and hour before using. It is hard to roll out so it may be easier to dip you knuckles in icing sugar and press it carefully into a loose bottomed flan ring. Chill again.

Enjoy you rhubarb, remember the ancient trade routes and as you eat pray to your god for peace in Iraq and the world.

One response so far

One Response to “Rhubarb”

  1. Henry Dimblebyon 04 May 2004 at 10:44 pm

    Glad to hear things there roaring away. In my garden, sad to say, it was the bindweed, which overtook half the garden up to the knee.

    I spent the weekend digging it out – benefit is it took a surface layer of detritis and stones with it leaving beautiful soil.

    Now about to play catch up and plant tomatoes. What types give best quality and yeild do you think?

    BTW am experimenting with Fructose jam – will let you know how it goes. Plus: cooked a rib of beef yesterday for 10 hours at 65 degrees C. Took it out when internal temp was 56 degrees c. Amazing results: rare – beautiful pink all the way through and butter-like.

    See you soon,


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