It’s January, the heart of winter and I am already longing for the pink fruits of spring and summer. This is the time of year when on first inspection it seems like there is a real lack of fresh seasonal produce to make the most of in the kitchen. There is, of course, a lot to be said for the comfort of root vegetables and the continued stash of orchard fruits, but quite frankly, I need a change.
I sometimes bemoan England for a lack of food culture – where are our festival feasts of biryani, mole or fondue? Do I really have to make a case for bread sauce and sticky toffee pudding? Yet look a little into the past and you will find that England was the first nation in the world to force rhubarb. The candy cane sticks of rosiness have a history of great depth, with their earliest recorded use dating back to 2700BC. Crumble and fool were not on the menu though and rhubarb was in use as an important drug of the time. Seen as a cure for ailments of the gut, lung and liver, it was so sought after that in 1657 it could command three times the price of Opium in England.
Rhubarb began to establish itself as an English cooking ingredient in the late 18th century and it was in 1817 when the forcing process was discovered at Chelsea Physic Gardens. As with all great discoveries, it came about by accident. In the depths of winter some rhubarb roots were fortuitously covered with soil, it was only weeks later that gardeners noticed tender shoots emerging. From this initial realisation, commercial growers in the London area began growing (or blanching) rhubarb by delving it into darkness.
Yorkshire then became the first place in the world to erect special sheds just for the exclusive purpose of tending to the forcing of rhubarb. The vegetable (vegetable, not fruit) produced in Yorkshire was of such good quality that the area between Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford began to be known as The Rhubarb Triangle – the crucially important world epicentre of forced rhubarb. And so our Yorkshire crop became the champagne of the rhubarb world. Just to cement its fame, the rhubarb was, and continues to be, harvested by candle light, maintaining the tenderness of the shoots and making sure that growth continues.
It is not just in the UK that rhubarb holds significance, it has been used as an ingredient in Iran since ancient times. The story goes that the father and mother of humankind grew from the stalks and leaves of a rhubarb plant in the Persian story of creation. It makes sense, as the drab days of winter drag on, suddenly we get glimpses of vivid pink, providing colour amidst the grey, ready to ambush our palate with vibrancy and life.
The sharp, bright flavour of rhubarb makes it a perfect addition to cocktails. Its versatility means that it can be used creatively in different drinks. The Conduit’s master of mixology, Walter Pintus, has shared with us his seasonal recipe for a Rhubarb Negroni. Straight forward, simple, but mighty refreshing. So dust off your cocktail glasses and give this one a crack.
But if that’s all too much, head to the 5th floor and our obliging bartenders will make one for you…
Walter’s Rhubarb Negroni
30ml Tanqueray 10 Gin
30ml Rosé Vermouth
10ml Rhubarb Cordial
3 dashes Grapefruit Bitters
Ribbons of rhubarb, for garnish
Gently stir all the ingredients together over ice.
Serve over fresh ice in an Old Fashioned glass.
Garnish with freshly shaved rhubarb ribbon.