In a cavernous, dark, barn in Yorkshire, my county of birth, a strange phenomenon is taking place. The magical process starts with the faintest of ‘pops’ crackling gently throughout the barn, followed by a mesmeric rustling as if of fairy wings. Flickering candles held aloft on spikes allow the workers in this other-worldly realm to move around without fear of treading on their delicate charges.
Sounds like the opening chapter to a fairy tale, doesn’t it? It’s actually an extraordinary feat of nature, gently helped by the human hand, bringing into the world the opening of over half a million buds in a single day. The buds pop and strain quietly as the shoots emerge at an uncanny speed, revealing the luminescent rose-pink stems of one of the most prized crops in this country, Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb.
Beyond this haven of darkness and warmth, provided by propane gas heaters and overhead sprinkler systems, newly planted rhubarb is growing outside in the bitter cold of the wet Yorkshire soil. The final harvesting of forced rhubarb takes place in its third year when the plants crowns are transplanted from outdoors to inside the barns. Their first two years are spent growing in the chill, wet soil of ‘Rhubarb Triangle’ – an area of flinty soil in rainy greenbelt land pointing to the cities of Bradford, Leeds and Wakefield.
The contrast of two years of hardship outside in the cold, followed by a pampered existence in the warmth and dark of the forcing barns, ensures an intensity of glucose in the roots which imparts a remarkable sweetness to the tender, palest-pink shoots.
I’m always thrilled to see the forced rhubarb making its brief appearance at the market from late winter to very early Spring, somehow its short season makes it all the more precious. It lends itself to the most delicate of desserts and to savoury dishes too. I think a delicious and oh-so simple way to enjoy it is to poach a little chopped forced rhubarb with a drop of rosewater in the water, add a couple of teaspoons of runny honey and boil hard but briefly then cool. So good for breakfast with thick Greek yogurt.