Hungry History

Rhubarb: A Love Affair

By Beth Dunn
Rhubarb

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The coronation of a new queen always unleashes a tidal wave of commemorative memorabilia, and Queen Victoria’s crowning in 1837 was no exception. But amid all of the cheap mementos and tacky tchotchkes was a true standout—a startling new variety of rhubarb that was like nothing anyone had ever seen before.

That’s right. Rhubarb.

Although this plain, unassuming vegetable had been a staple of British cooking for some time, it wasn’t until 1837 that the plant truly took the English-speaking world by storm. In fact, the introduction of this quirky coronation commemorative marked the beginning of what would be a long and passionate love affair between the Victorians and rhubarb.

Rhubarb had been featured in pies, custards and fools for ages. But the plant didn’t come without its problems. Poison, for instance. The broad, flat leaves are terribly poisonous, packed as they are with toxic levels of oxalic acid. And the edible stalks, though tasty enough when stewed with sufficient amounts of sugar, could still be stringy and tough, depending on growing conditions and other uncertain variables.

The introduction of the Victoria variety put a stop to all that. Victoria rhubarb was the rhubarb the 19th century had been waiting for. Easy to grow, reliably robust and consistently sweet and tender, Victoria rhubarb was a runaway smash hit from the start. And the Victorian obsession with rhubarb had truly begun.

They put rhubarb in everything. Jams, jellies, pies, custards, fools and puddings. And while rhubarb is generally treated as a fruit, it also made many popular appearances in recipes of the day as a savory ingredient, frequently paired with meats and cheeses in stuffings and sauces.

The cult of Victoria rhubarb soon took on mythic proportions, and even the harvesting of the plant was shrouded in mysterious and romantic overtones. It wasn’t long before British farmers discovered that the sweetest crops were generated from the practice of “forcing” rhubarb—by cultivating it in complete darkness under carefully controlled conditions. Because any strong light could damage the plants, harvesting was conducted at night, by torchlight. This practice is still followed today, especially in the famed “rhubarb triangle” of West Yorkshire, which once supplied 90 percent of the world’s sweet forced rhubarb.

Rhubarb enjoyed widespread popularity for about 100 years. But the expansion of trade that followed the World Wars introduced more competition, and eventually rhubarb fell out of favor, acquiring a reputation for being stodgy and old-fashioned. Only a few staunch supporters still included recipes for rhubarb pie in their cookbooks, and even then it was generally as a mere historical footnote.

But rhubarb is on the upswing again, and is now poised to make a comeback in the early decades of the 21st century. Yorkshire forced rhubarb now enjoys Protected Designation of Origin status: as with champagne and Stilton cheese, the name can only be applied to rhubarb that comes from the approved section of Yorkshire. And the ritual of harvesting by torchlight—in many cases using the very same cast iron torches that were used 150 years ago—is attracting more press and attention every year. Recipes are starting to crop up in fashionable cookbooks and magazines, and the old favorite of the Victorians is finally back in vogue again.

Fool is a traditional English dessert that was popular throughout the 19th century on both sides of the Atlantic. Simple to make and relatively healthy as desserts go, it generally consists a pureed fruit folded gently into a light, tart custard. This version calls for sweetened Greek yogurt and whipped cream in place of custard, which lends the dish a delightful tartness.

Rhubarb Fool

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RHUBARB FOOL

Start to finish: 2 hours
Servings: 8

2 cups rhubarb, roughly chopped
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 cup whipping cream
16 ounces Greek yogurt

Place the rhubarb in a pan with the sugar over low heat. Simmer, covered, until tender. Uncover, turn up the heat to medium and allow some of the juice to evaporate. Set aside and cool.

Whip the cream until it forms soft peaks, then carefully fold in the yogurt. Loosely swirl in the cooled rhubarb (you should still be able to see bright red streaks amid the pale white cream and yogurt mixture), and chill in refrigerator for at least an hour.

Serve in shallow dishes or glasses.

Categories: Dessert, Fruit, Queen Victoria, Vegetables