Rhubarb Yorkshire triangle

Yorkshire rhubarb producers are centralised on the suitable soils between Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford, which became known as ‘The Rhubarb Triangle’. The position of the Rhubarb Triangle, situated within the shadows of the Pennines, acts as a frost pocket. This geographical location has proved invaluable to the growers, as it provides the perfect weather conditions essential to the plant.

Rhubarb is not a fruit at all – it’s actually a vegetable, the stem of a perennial plant. Its slender girth and bright colour are the results of a technique called ‘forcing’. As legend has it, in 1817 when rhubarb was being grown in London at the Chelsea Physic Garden, someone accidentally left an upturned bucket on top of one of the plants. The rhubarb, struggling in this light-deprived environment, produced long, thin stems and small, pale leaves. Someone was savvy enough to try it and the flavour was deemed so exquisite that the accident soon became a technique.

Not only is the taste divine, but the health giving benefits are remarkable. Rhubarb is rich in calcium, fibre, magnesium, iron, vitamin C, B2, B3, provitamin A, with high levels of oxalic acid and is now classified as a superfood for its ratio of health benefits to calories – only 7 calories per 100 grams. Savvy slimmers have also realised it actually speeds up their metabolism and the high levels of calcium mean it is a fat-free alternative to dairy products which lowers cholesterol, making it ideal for your health conscious diners.

In February 2010, Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb was awarded Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the European Commission’s Protected Food Name scheme after being recommended by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Statistics show that in 1966 there were 1022 acres of rhubarb in the triangle, but by 1980 this had fallen to 422 acres. Since then it has fallen even further, in the Rhubarb Triangle there are now only around 12 growers of which we use E Oldroyd & sons near Wakefield and Robert Tomlinson in Pusdey.

Rhubarb was first grown in the area in the 1870s and at one stage there were more than 200 commercial operations, which have now dwindled to a handful. The triangle offers ideal growing conditions, with a deep, cold and moist topsoil. Growing a harvestable product takes up to three years, with the plant initially being grown outdoors and subjected to a specified number of frosts, then each winter, acres of rhubarb plants are transferred by hand into long, dark nursery sheds to be ‘forced’. They grow at an accelerated rate in the light-free hothouses, which are so completely silent you can hear the ‘pop’ as the buds of new stalks burst open. Workers harvest armfuls of stalks by candlelight to preserve the younger stems that are still growing, any light would spoil the crop.

The candles do more than guide the pickers’ path. Once inside the dark sheds, where the rhubarb is kept at a temperature of 13C, the naked flames perform a clever trick. Each stalk of rhubarb, after two weeks in the pitch black environment, is desperate to glimpse even the faintest spot of light. On the promise of candlelight, the stalks force their way up out of their earthy nest.

The harvested stalks are tender, sweet, and a distinctive bright pink in colour with tiny curled yellow leaves that makes forced rhubarb instantly recognisable. Known as Champagne rhubarb it is considered a delicacy and can fetch prices three times higher than its more fibrous and bitter outdoor equivalent.

Wakefield Council in West Yorkshire holds an annual Rhubarb Festival in February, celebrating the area’s links and promoting the surviving rhubarb industry.Massively supported by our supplier, E Oldroyd and sons.

Scientists and doctors believe that growers in the Rhubarb Triangle around Bradford, Wakefield and Leeds, are aiding the fight against cancer, while researchers at Sheffield Hallam University have found that baking British-grown rhubarb for 20 minutes can dramatically boost its levels of anti-cancer chemicals.

The findings, published with the Scottish Crop Research Institute and funded by the Centre for Food Innovation, showed that the chemicals, called polyphenols, could kill or prevent the growth of cancer cells. There is now hope that new, less toxic, treatments for ­the disease could be developed.

In short, Yorkshire rhubarb is good for both the palate and the body, so it makes sense to have it on any menu.