The perfect rhubarb

To find the home of the perfect rhubarb stalk, we headed to the heart of the Yorkshire triangle to Tomlinsons – one of only a handful of forced rhubarb farmers.

Visiting Tomlinsons’ farm on the outskirts of Leeds wasn’t so much a journey in space – it’s only 30 miles from Wellocks – but in time. Tomlinsons is one of a handful of forced rhubarb growers in Yorkshire’s legendary ‘rhubarb triangle’ – Leeds, Wakefield, Bradford – that still grow rhubarb the old way, just like their forefathers have for generations.

It’s a long and intensive process for a harvest that lasts less than eight weeks from January through February. The cycle begins two years earlier when roots are divided and planted outside, fertilised and kept clean. After the second summer, regular soil testing takes place and when cold enough the root balls are dug up – some weighing 80 kilos – and transported inside the forcing sheds, known as cathedrals. It’s back-breaking work.

In the sheds the plants are kept in total darkness and at a constant temperature of 13℃. This forces the growth, which is so fast that in early January you can hear the creaking and popping of the stalks as they shoot up to find precious light. This technique is known as ‘forcing’ and why forced rhubarb has such a slender girth, bright colours and delicate sweet flavour. It’s picked daily and carefully by candlelight, which stimulates more growth in the smaller shoots left behind.

Forced rhubarb has a unique northern heritage that’s being kept alive by a handful of growers. First grown in Yorkshire in the 1870s, there were more than 200 commercial operations at one point. That number has dropped to less than a dozen centred on the triangle with its ideal growing conditions – a deep, cold and moist topsoil and frost pocket in the shadows of the Pennines. These conditions and its heritage helped the area achieve the much coveted Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status in 2010. Robert Tomlinson told me that to get an even better colour and flavour he is experimenting with newer varieties that are closer to 40 than a 100 years old. A good year can see each shed producing up to 1,800 boxes – at 6.35 kg per box.

Forced rhubarb was – legend has it – discovered by accident in 1817 at the Chelsea Physic Garden, when someone left an upturned bucket on top of one of the rhubarb plants. The rhubarb, struggling in this light-deprived environment, produced pale golden leaves and long, thin stems that were delicious and remain the delight of chefs – many Michelin-starred – who eagerly await the first boxes of the short season.

As Robert’s dad, David, now retired, explained, rhubarb isn’t actually a fruit but a vegetable and now one of a group of highly prized ‘superfoods’. From ancient times, rhubarb has been grown and consumed for a wide range of health benefits especially for the gut, lung and liver. Rhubarb is rich in calcium, fibre, magnesium, iron, vitamin C, B2, B3, provitamin A, with high levels of oxalic acid. It wasn’t until the 18th century that rhubarb became popular for cooking and the sweet juicy stems of forced rhubarb bear little resemblance to the coarse bitter outdoor cousin.

Take a look at the video and you’ll see how labour intensive growing ‘forced rhubarb’ is and why. As Robert Tomlinson says, “We’re still farming it exactly the same way my grandad did 80 years ago – because there just isn’t another way of doing it.” Practice makes perfect and that’s why Tomlinson’s rhubarb is the perfect ingredient – and to keep it that way, we deliver it to customers within 24 hours of it being picked.

That freshness is certainly key at Michelin-starred The Box Tree in Ilkley, one of Yorkshire’s most famous and long-established restaurants now owned and run by chef Simon Gueller and partner Rena. As a Yorkshire kitchen with Yorkshire chefs, it is justly proud of fine local produce including forced rhubarb. Chef Simon said: “Each batch of rhubarb is unique, so we season with sugar and adjust the amount by taste” he said. Giving a classic a little twist, head Chef Lawrence Yates has developed a signature dish that shows off the products best qualities – a rhubarb crumble souffle served with vanilla ice cream and poached rhubarb. Lawrence kindly shares his recipe here.

I get very excited visiting unique farms like Tomlinsons. The cathedrals are absolutely stunning and the colours are just unreal – it’s Yorkshire gold. There are so many fantastic products out there being passionately nurtured by farmers who have so much knowledge and tradition behind them. The numbers have dwindled and there’s no new forced rhubarb growers coming so we want to help and support Tomlinsons as much as possible. Wellocks is very proud to collect produce of this calibre and deliver it to chefs. Diversity is vital for the planet and for the restaurant business – and we are committed to supporting forced rhubarb stalk by stalk!

Did you know?

  • Forced Yorkshire rhubarb has DOP status that covers the Yorkshire triangle of
  • For over 4,000 years rhubarb has been used for medicinal purposes
  • Named a superfood for its vitamins, minerals and low calorie content
  • In the 16th century rhubarb was thrice the price of opium