Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb History, Facts, and Recipes

Fresh Yorkshire Rhubarb. Elaine Lemm
  • 01 of 05

    Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb - What is Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb

    Elaine Lemm

    Until the early 19th century rhubarb was only grown outdoors. The thick, green acidic stems were harvested from their hardy crowns from late spring through early autumn. Following a happy accident in 1817, a new process of indoor growing was discovered - read the history of how this happened on the following pages.

    Forcing is the process whereby rhubarb crowns are taken indoors, deprived of food and light which then kick-starts (forces) the crowns to throw out stalks. The 2-3 year old rhubarb...MORE roots are first lifted from the fields only after they have been exposed to frost before being planting inside huge, dark sheds. Once inside the rhubarb stalks grow so quickly it is possible, if it is quiet in the shed, to hear the ‘popping’ sound as the stalks are pushed out from the bud.

    The resulting rhubarb stalks are slender, sweeter and infinitely more tender than those that are grown outdoors. The stalks range in color from delicate blush pink to a deep crimson red and are only available between January and March, with perhaps a few weeks either side in a good season.

    The rhubarb must be harvested by hand, a time consuming process as each stem must be removed intact from the root. The stick is ready to be picked when it is an arms-length long. The picker then inserts a finger between the stick and bud at the base, gently pushing whilst twisting and pulling. Any remnant of stalk left in the bud could rot and potentially cause botrytis, a fungus which can quickly spread and affect the whole shed - a disaster for any rhubarb grower.

    Questions have been asked by visitors to the sheds if it is in fact cruel to deprive the rhubarb plants of light and food. We have been assured that this is not so. No one has ever heard the plants scream.

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  • 02 of 05

    A History of Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb

    Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb
    What is Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb? - The History - Why Yorkshire? - The Revival of Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb - Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb Recipes. Photo © Oldroyds - Leeds

    Much as rhubarb is considered an intrinsic part of British food, our claim to its ownership goes back just a few hundred years. Before this time it was only the root which was sought after; the stalk and leaves were of no value and certainly not considered for any culinary merit. However, Britain grabbed the culinary delights of rhubarb well before the rest of Europe. The falling price of sugar was certainly a contributing factor, and by the mid 18th century pies, puddings, jams, jellies and...MORE wines made their way onto the British table.

    It was the result, however, of a happy accident in the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1817 which moved the enjoyment of rhubarb, which until this point was only grown outdoors, onto an entirely different level.

    In the depths of the winter a number of rhubarb roots were accidentally covered with soil by workmen digging a trench. Weeks later when the soil was removed, peeping through were tiny, tender, pink shoots of rhubarb which thankfully someone noticed. These shoots were noticeably better quality, had a far superior flavor and were less astringent than anything before. Soon commercial growers around London began blanching the rhubarb. Some growers also lifted the roots from the ground and brought them into buildings to grow the stalks. 

    Further north in Yorkshire this method of bringing the rhubarb ‘on’ was taken onto a much larger scale. Huge sheds were erected to house the rhubarb and as the popularity of it grew, many in what became known as the “Rhubarb Triangle’ of Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford turned land over to growing rhubarb. Every week night during the intense short season trains carried up to 200 tons of the sweet, forced stems to the London markets.

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  • 03 of 05

    Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb - Why Yorkshire?

    Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb
    What is Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb? - The History - Why Yorkshire? - The Revival of Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb - Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb Recipes. Photo © Getty Images

    Here are 4 reasons explaining "why Yorkshire?"

    1. Rhubarb originates in Siberia so it obviously prefers a cold climate. Rhubarb also needs a lot of water and a good supply of nitrogen. As West Yorkshire is located close to the Pennines, the hilly backbone of Britain, the shadow of these hills creates not only a frost pocket but also provides a high level of rainfall.
    2. Leeds and the surrounding area at that time were also the center of the world's woollen industry. The rhubarb fields were...MORE fertilized with the waste from the processes wool, which provided a priceless source of nitrogen.
    3. Coal for heating the sheds was plentiful with the rich Yorkshire coalfields close by. With coal, wool and now rhubarb to export from the county, Yorkshire was in high production.
    4. The nightly 'Rhubarb Express' from Yorkshire would rapidly deliver the freshly harvested stalks to the London markets every night during the short, intense three month season. At the peak of the season this was as much as 200 tons a day.

    With so many of forced rhubarb's necessities in one place, Yorkshire went on to enjoy almost a whole century of success.

    Sadly though, the post-war decline in rhubarb's popularity severely affected the growers in Yorkshire. What had once been 200 growers shrank to only 11, and where there had been thousands of acres given over to rhubarb, this shriveled to around 400. The Rhubarb Express ceased its nightly journey in the mid 1960's.

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  • 04 of 05

    The Revival Of Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb

    Janet Oldroyd Hulme
    What is Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb? - The History - Why Yorkshire? - The Revival of Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb - Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb Recipes. Photo © Yorkshire Post

    The revival of rhubarb clearly came on the back of the revival of interest and desire for indigenous, locally grown produce. This was due to a highly-publicized, and ultimately successful campaign to protect the traditionally grown rhubarb under the European PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status. This has put Yorkshire Rhubarb back on the world stage.

    The Yorkshire growers, led, by among many others, Janet Oldroyd Hulme, of E H Oldroyd’s and Sons (rhubarb growers for 5 generations)...MORE mounted a vigorous campaign to raise awareness of the uniqueness of Yorkshire rhubarb and the need to protect the name from the deluge of foreign imports imitating the forcing method. Once awarded, no one else can call their rhubarb Yorkshire Forced. Only rhubarb grown in the designated triangle has the right to the name.

    For the consumer, it means when buying Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb they can be assured it is of the expected quality and flavor, and that it is grown in the traditional manner. It was a lengthy battle to be awarded the designation and the winning of it means not only worldwide recognition but a massive a boost for sales.

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  • 05 of 05

    Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb Recipes

    Rhubarb Crumble Recipe
    What is Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb? - The History - Why Yorkshire? - The Revival of Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb - Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb Recipes. Photo © RFB Photography

    Without doubt, rhubarb is one of the most versatile foods in the hands of a cook or chef. It can be stewed, roasted, baked or boiled. It is as happy as a comforting, stodgy pudding as it is in a sophisticated jelly. It plays nicely with fatty meats and oily fish, makes a delicious jam or partner to hot spices and exotic fruits in a chutney or relish. Watch it turn from vegetable to wine, add a glow to vodka or a blush to a summer cordial. How many other vegetables do you know that can do that?...MORE (Yes, rhubarb is a vegetable.)