The first non-imported fruit of the year is now available: forced rhubarb, grown in pitch-dark sheds in the ‘rhubarb triangle’ of Yorkshire. Of course rhubarb is technically not a fruit at all, but a vegetable. It’s the vivid pink stems of the Rheum plant that are edible, the actual fruits being insignificant dry pods containing the seed. Native to the cool, damp tracts of the Asian steppes, rhubarb wasn’t grown in Europe until the 17th century, originally as a medicinal herb used for digestive problems and then, when sugar became more widely available to take the edge off its tart flavour, as the foundation for puddings.
Other than gooseberries and blackcurrants, rhubarb is my favourite fruit. So I dispatched my long-suffering partner to Cardiff Central Market on Saturday with the strict instruction: GET ME RHUBARB!! This my guardian angel accomplished, bringing home three giant stalks (£2.50) which I promptly turned into that rhubarb standard, the crumble. We had it warm with a custard (home-made with eggs, cream and vanilla – we don’t do shop-bought!) and it was delicious. When cooking rhubarb it should be cut into good-sized chunks, softened slowly in its own juices in a covered pan and not overcooked to a pulp. Resist adding too much sugar – just enough to take away the bitter edge, not so much that you lose the sharp zing.
The forced rhubarb season continues until April then outdoor rhubarb is available right through to July. Rest assured, I will be running up rhubarb delights like a thing demented every chance I get between now and then (how odd: my partner is turning green). It won’t always be crumbles, pies and flans though; I’m also very partial to plain rhubarb, fool.