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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Picked by Candlelight

Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas MARCH. 03, 2021

[214-365] 3rd. March 2021- The Crown Jewel of the vegetable world, consumed as a fruit in England. Early English rhubarb.

Our traditional winter English "fruit" is in fact a vegetable, forced to grow in the darkness of a building without windows, picked by candlelight, in an area of England called the "Rhubarb Triangle".

The Rhubarb Triangle (or Tusky Triangle from a Yorkshire word for rhubarb) is a 9-square-mile (23 km2) area of West Yorkshire, England between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell famous for producing early forced rhubarb. The Rhubarb Triangle was originally much bigger, covering an area between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield. From the 1900s to 1930s, the rhubarb industry expanded and at its peak covered an area of about 30 square miles (78 km2).

Rhubarb is native to Siberia and thrives in the wet cold winters in Yorkshire. West Yorkshire once produced 90% of the world's winter forced rhubarb from the forcing sheds that were common across the fields there.

The cultivation method for forced rhubarb was developed in the early 1800s. The fields were fertilised with large quantities of horse manure and 'night soil' from the nearby urban areas and woollen waste from "mungo and shoddy" mills.

Night Soil- A euphemism for human waste, thankfully not used anymore.

Mungo- Fibrous woollen material generated from waste fabric, particularly tightly woven cloths and rags.

Shoddy- Recycled or remanufactured wool. Historically generated from loosely woven materials. Benjamin Law invented shoddy and mungo, as such, in England in 1813. He was the first to organise, on a larger scale, the activity of taking old clothes and grinding them down into a fibrous state that could be re-spun into yarn. The importance of the industry can be gauged by the fact that even in 1860 the town of Batley was producing over 7,000 tonnes of shoddy. At the time there were 80 firms employing a total of 550 people sorting the rags. These were then sold to shoddy manufacturers of which there were about 130 in the West Riding. Shoddy is inferior to the original wool. "Shoddy" has come to mean "of poor quality" in general (not related to clothing), and the original meaning is largely obsolete.

The rhubarb plants spend two years out in the fields without being harvested. While in the fields the plants store energy from the sun in their roots as carbohydrates. The roots are subjected to frost before being moved into sheds in November where they are kept in complete darkness. In the sheds the plants begin to grow in the warmth and the stored carbohydrate in the roots is transformed into glucose resulting in forced rhubarb's sour-sweet flavour. The sheds are long low buildings which are heated; originally with coal, which was plentiful and relatively cheap in the area, but this has been replaced by diesel.

Forced rhubarb grown in the sheds is more tender than that grown outdoors in summer. Without daylight the rhubarb leaves are a green-yellow colour, and the stalks, measuring around 2 feet (61 cm), are crimson in colour with a smooth texture. Traditionally, the pickers pull the stalks in candlelight as any exposure to strong light will stop the growth. By the end of March the harvest is over and the root stock is totally exhausted and used for compost.

Growing and forcing rhubarb was originally done by many hundreds of small farmers, smallholders and market gardeners. In later years some growers expanded and owned many thousands of roots and extensive forcing sheds. In the late 19th century early forced rhubarb was sent to Spitalfields and Covent Garden markets in London in time for Christmas and was sent to Paris for the French market. A special express train carrying rhubarb was run by the Great Northern Railway Company from Ardsley station every weekday night during the forced rhubarb season from Christmas until Easter. Up to 200 tons of rhubarb sent by up to 200 growers was carried daily at the peak of production before 1939. Wikipedia.

The opening shot is of cooked rhubarb. Rhubarb has a high water content so do not add any. I bake it covered, in the oven, sprinkled with sugar in this case light brown sugar. It does need sugar. I also sprinkle it with ground ginger. This was done in an oven set to 180 degrees fan for 20-25 minutes, not preheated. After 20-25 minutes I switch off the oven and leave it in there to cool until lukewarm when it is eaten with custard. It also makes a great "fruit" crumble.

A year ago when I moved into my present house, one of my first tasks was to plant rhubarb, which I probably won't taste until next year. You have to plan ahead with rhubarb. Rhubarb will spread but to keep it growing you must be selective as to how many stalks you pick. Every stalk you pick can potentially kill the plant so ideally you need your rhubarb to spread to about five plants from which you can then occasionally pick one stalk each leaving the other leaves to feed the roots. As a bonus it is an attractive plant with huge umbrella like leaves which add an architectural component to your garden.


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