23 October 1998

HUMBLE RHUBARB

A GOURMET TREAT

GOURMET rhubarb, direct from the forcing sheds in West Yorkshire, is classed as a vegetable but is finding increasing popularity in trendy restaurants and humble homes as a dessert par excellence.

The 19 rhubarb grower members of the Leeds and District Market Gardeners Association, who are responsible for 90% of forced rhubarb production, have joined forces with the National Farmers Union to promote their product by nominating Jan 14 as the first ever National Winter Gourmet Rhubarb Day.

As a lead-up to that special day, the organisers are seeking to tap the culinary art of the nation by running a recipe competition, with a £500 prize for the winning recipe, judged by celebrity chef John Benson-Smith, Hazelwood Castle, near Leeds.

Winter gourmet rhubarb is special – a real delicacy, he says, and he will be looking for a recipe which shows off its versatility, yet is easy enough for the unaccomplished cook to have a go at.

Closing date for entries is Nov 16. The winning recipe will be cooked by chefs as part of the national rhubarb day celebration.

A leaflet containing the pick of the submitted recipes will be printed and distributed as point of sale material by the major supermarket chains which are now responsible for the retail sale of the bulk of the crop.

&#42 Forced production

West Yorkshire is the traditional home of forced rhubarb production, although a small number of growers are to be found in Kent and other parts of the country.

"We hope the country unites to help make National Rhubarb Day a successful one for British produce and British cooking", says NFU group secretary, Tony Bowey. "We want to see everyone enjoy the flavour of this tasty crop."

Methods of gourmet rhubarb production have changed little over the years. The use of long and low forcing sheds, offering little by way of headroom has ruled out mechanisation. Rhubarb remains a very labour intensive crop.

For growers like David Westwood and his son Johnathon the crop occupies a quarter of their 162 ha (400 acre) vegetable growing farm at Thorpe, near Wakefield.

Rhubarb roots are grown in the field for two or three years. before they are lifted and transferred to heated forcing sheds in conditions of total darkness.

The Westwoods have 19 forcing sheds, some of which are filled twice to give continuity of cropping from December through to April, using early, main crop and late varieties.

Moving 150,000 roots, the product of 12ha (30 acres) by hand from field and into forcing sheds is labour intensive, as is the harvest operation, carried out on hands and knees by candlelight (the traditional method aimed at preventing the growing crop forming chlorophyll.

Some growers have progressed to using low wattage light bulbs, but to avoid any risk of accidentally ruining the crop, the light bulbs are removed from their sockets after each picking.

&#42 Harvested yields

Mr Westwood looks for a harvested yield approaching 2t of rhubarb from 1000 roots, packed and marketed in three grades, the bulk of it now going through the supermarkets, rather than the traditional wholesale markets.

As forcing time approaches, he is keeping a close eye on sterling values. Last year was not a good one for the growers. Low prices for bananas and other fruit pulled down the rhubarb price. His fear is that a strong £ could have the same effect this year.

Alan Barker

* Entry forms and rules from Winter Gourmet Rhubarb Recipe

Competition, PO Box 33, Tadcaster, North Yorks. LS24 9UU.

Right: David and Johnathon Westwood who grow five varieties of rhubarb at Lofthouse, Wakefield, Yorks.

Below: Winter gourmet rhubarb is forced in dark sheds and picked by the light of candles or low watt electric bulbs.