A Day in the Yorkshire Rhubarb Triangle
I've always been a fan of those more tart-tasting fruits. As a child, I would undoubtedly choose lemon tarts over strawberry, and Granny Smith apples over Galas.
After getting over the initial weirdness of flavour, munching on sticks that my dad showed me how to dip in sugar, Rhubarb made its way up there as one of my favourites. Though technically a vegetable, it's generally treated as a fruit. If presented with a menu where one of the course options contains rhubarb, I will usually disregard all other competing dishes in favour of it. I love its distinct flavour, and all the other great ingredients it pairs well with.
I remember Rick Stein visiting the Rhubarb Triangle in Yorkshire in one of his series' years ago. It stuck with me; the magic of those forcing sheds, and this idea of the almost sentience of the rhubarb plants, trying to seek out a pinprick of light, and growing so quickly you can even hear them creak. There's a romance and mystique to its medicinal past, and how the crop is harvested by candlelight.
On a whim, having remembered that it was forced rhubarb season, I decided to investigate the possibility of visiting a forced rhubarb farm. My first Google search turned up Rick's very same rhubarb farm, E. Oldroyd and Sons, straight away. Despite the truly antiquated website, I managed to figure out how the tours were booked, and scheduled us in for the same weekend as the Wakefield Food and Drink Festival.
Although generally much like other food and drink festivals we've been to in the UK—locally made pies, cakes, booze and cheeses—the Wakefield Festival has a distinct Rhubarb theme, with most sellers proudly showcasing its famous and most prestigious crop by having at least one or more Rhubarb products on offer. Our favourite finds were Mr Fitzpatrick's Vintage Cordials, The Nook Brewhouse, and Sawley Kitchen (the most incredible rhubarb and custard shortbread!), but there were lots of good sellers about.
The farm tour itself was a 15 minute drive outside of Wakefield centre to Ashfield Farm in the village of Carlton. Our slot was pretty much fully-booked, with many visitors having not even come from the festival. They were just there for the tour.
It started with a presentation in a side room, where fourth generation grower and "High Priestess of Rhubarb" herself, Janet, started slightly awkwardly with a bit of a sales pitch about the products we could buy at the farm (we were always going to fill our shopping bag, anyway). This lasted a few minutes however, and then she got in to the good stuff, her forte; the history of rhubarb and its ancient medicinal past. This part lasted almost an hour, but Mark and I agreed that it had felt much shorter, fascinated as we both were by Janet's depth and breadth of knowledge on the subject. She even slipped in a few cheeky jokes.
We were then taken in to the vast candlelit growing shed by her son, Lindsay, who today is the Production and Technical Manager, and the fifth generation to take up the Oldroyd rhubarb mantle. His focus was more on the production and harvest of the crop from their particular sheds, woven with humour, and stories from his childhood and life as a rhubarb farmer.
Tickets for the tour were only £7.50 per person, and the on-farm rhubarb shop was great value for money. At the time of writing this, the rhubarb was £2.50 for 400g, or 3 packs for £7. You could even get 6kg boxes of the premium grade Crimson Crown for £25 each, which I think is the stuff they send to top-end London restaurants. To put this in to perspective, a 400g pack of forced rhubarb at Waitrose is £3.50.
You can get outdoor rhubarb from April until as late as the Autumn, but these varieties tend to be tougher and greener, with the tender pinkness being lost to photosynthesis. I of course, will give rhubarb a go in all its guises because I bloody love the stuff, but for romance and aesthetics, you can't really beat the forced varieties.
Here are a few recipes to get you inspired:
Rhubarb and Ginger Frangipane (Whole Milk Club)
Mackerel with Rhubarb Relish (Diana Henry)
Pulled Pork with Rhubarb Sauce (Tom Kerridge - Proper Pub Food, page 144)
Rhubarb Crumble Bars (Whole Milk Club)