Thought it was about time I gave a little nod to one of my favourite summer treats, rhubarb and fill you in on some of the fun facts I've learned about this tangy pink treat we enjoy each summer. Rhubarb is not native to these shores but has made itself very welcome here being particularly fond of our temperate climate. As most of you know, it is the stalks which are devoured each spring and summer rewarding us with this delicious fruit which stands alone in its unique flavour profile.
There are two notable periods when rhubarb is at its best, namely in early spring when it is forced and later on in early summer. Forcing is a traditional practice where the stalks are plunged into darkness for the first couple of months of growth resulting in sweet, delicate stems that are a delight at the start of the growing season. Later on, in early summer, we can enjoy a second harvest from the stalks grown outdoors. These are much thicker, robust stalks that lend themselves well to dessert dishes like crumble and pie but must be cooked and sweetened to avoid the uncomfortable, stomach upsetting, side effects brought about by the presence of compounds known as anthraquinones.
The uses for rhubarb are not confined to sweet and savoury recipes of which there are many but also include its medicinal properties which have been known for thousands of years. Today, research of this tart treat has found that it has promising anti-cancer properties which are particularly effective in the treatment of pancreatic cancer.
Moving away from all the chemical properties of rhubarb and delving into the history of how it met our shores brings us back to the famous Silk Road. This was an important merchant route through which all manner of trade items such as silk, herbs and spices were transported from China to Europe. Although rhubarb had been growing in Russia for centuries it was Marco Polo who discovered it had been used for its medicinal properties in China for thousands of years beforehand. For this reason, it was expensive to transport and was widely revered as a merchantable commodity and placed in the same category as diamonds and pearls!
Today, rhubarb is readily grown in gardens up and down the country, providing a versatile and often plentiful crop which can be coaxed into a cordial or used as a tenderiser for roasted meats. It is a particularly robust plant and has few enemies bar a few slugs and snails who dare to munch on its leaves early on in the season. My plants were inherited from my Grandads garden who in turn had inherited his from his Grandad. If my calculations are correct, this means these plants are probably close to 200 years old!
This year I am excited to be whipping up a batch of rhubarb cordial which I cannot wait to try. Here is a simple recipe adapted from the RHS website:
3kg of rhubarb, chopped
Add your chopped rhubarb and water to a large pot and bring to the boil with the lid on. Cook until the rhubarb has completely softened and strain through a muslin cloth for a few hours but if you have the time, overnight is best. Don’t be tempted to speed up the process by squeezing the mix as this will make the resulting cordial cloudy.
To prepare your rhubarb cordial, simply add 750g of caster sugar for every litre of syrup. Mix this with 75ml of lemon juice and heat until the sugar has dissolved. Store your cordial in sterilised bottles and enjoy with sparkling water, ginger ale or for the adult palette try prosecco or gin!
Enjoy! And do let us know how yours turns out!