Written by Alyson Jackson
This month, our family bakers Sarah and Liz visited rhubarb producer Oldroyd's at Hopefield Farm located in Rothwell, Leeds to collect the regionally acclaimed forced rhubarb. We use this exceptionally tender and sweet 'forced' rhubarb in a seasonal Yorkshire Brack flavour variation called ‘Ruby Brack’. Rhubarb is a fascinating plant, and Sarah and Liz thoroughly enjoyed talking to Janet Oldroyd-Hulme, whose family has been producing forced rhubarb for years. They also got the chance to take a peek inside the enchanting growing sheds where rhubarb is harvested by candlelight.
We hope you enjoy reading more...
Rhubarb is in fact a vegetable; it does not carry seed. Forced rhubarb must be grown out of the ground, and at Hopefield Farm they mimic summer temperatures and deprive the plant of light to trick the root and optimise growing conditions. When rhubarb is grown with roots in the ground and it is exposed to sunlight - conditions akin to homegrown rhubarb – energy is generated in the root and this results in tough stalks which lack flavour and colour.
Cultivating & Harvesting 'Forced' Rhubarb
Instead, you can cultivate the root. It takes three summers and two winters to cultivate the root and the last stage of this process is exposing the root to frost, which is also why Yorkshire is the perfect location! This cultivation process gives control over variety; Siberian Plant is grown at Hopefield Farm. When ready, the root is moved into dark, warm sheds and a five-week ‘forced’ harvesting process is started; the rhubarb stalks grow one inch per day and if you visit the sheds at the start of this process and conditions are quiet, you can hear the buds popping as the first shoots emerge.
The sheds are heated, dark, and air flow is optimised. No sprayed chemicals are used at this stage. There are only three root vegetables that can be forced: rhubarb, asparagus and chicory. The 'forced' growing process allows the plant to grow from its own root energy thus allowing the plant to thrive. In the sheds the atmosphere is damp and enchanting; you could be forgiven for thinking the rhubarb is dancing.
Growing forced rhubarb in Yorkshire dates back as far as 1877. The soil is very moist at Hopefield Farm which is perfect for cultivating and harvesting rhubarb. You may have heard of the term 'rhubarb triangle' which is a nine-square-mile area of West Yorkshire famous for producing forced rhubarb. Oldroyd's has been in Janet's family for years, in fact, her Grandfather was once hailed the 'Rhubarb King'. There are only nine growers left in the country and Oldroyd's Farm is a commercial supplier to Farm Shops, Supermarkets, celebrity chefs, restaurants and food producers, including us!
What do we make with 'forced' rhubarb?
Sarah Jarman, Elizabeth Botham's great granddaughter, said: "We were first acquainted with 'forced' rhubarb when we attended the Rhubarb Festival in Wakefield some time ago! The superior flavour and texture caught our attention and since then we have been making Ruby Brack, which is a rhubarb and stem ginger seasonal variation of Yorkshire Brack. More a pudding than a traditional brack, we would serve Ruby Brack gently warmed with a big dollop of custard ~ think hearty, warming 'Yorkshire' pudding! It's also delicious served with clotted cream or alongside a glass of rhubarb gin."
Sarah continues: "The sweet and delicate 'forced' rhubarb is a light and tangy addition to the brack and works exceptionally well with the cubes of stem ginger and juicy golden sultanas."
Rhubarb the Superfood
Historically, rhubarb has always been highly acclaimed for its medicinal qualities; it is anti-inflammatory and highly fibrous, to name just two. Janet told us how rhubarb is a metabolic stimulator and the rhubarb plant polyphenols have the ability to cleanse at cell level which is fascinating. Interestingly, its qualities are not affected by heat which is great news as typically rhubarb would be stewed; the heating process in fact accelerates rhubarb's healing power. Janet recommends enjoying stewed 'forced' rhubarb at breakfast time: "Bring a pan of chopped rhubarb and fresh orange juice to a gentle boil, turn the heat off and leave to gently stew (this process is quicker for forced rhubarb). Cool and enjoy with orange yogurt. No sugar is required, but can be added if necessary."
We think you will agree, what a fascinating food rhubarb is!
We would like to extend our thanks to Janet for welcoming us to Hopefield Farm and for giving us this fascinating insight into rhubarb and the 'forced' rhubarb process. Find out more about Oldroyd's