Wakefield Rhubarb Festival
The Rhubarb Festival is held annually in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. The town marks one of the points of the famous Rhubarb triangle which falls between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield. In this triangle is grown the best rhubarb in the world.
Wakefield council have put a lot of effort into the Rhubarb festival which is great fun for all the family. There is a marquee with a lovely rhubarb installation all lit up in pink and lots of cookery demonstrations with visiting celebrity chefs. The food stalls outside celebrate all things Rhubarb with a myriad of rhubarb related products. Rhubarb wine and rhubarb beer and in particular rhubarb gin are very popular.
We met the ebullient Ruby Rhubarb and there was Moris Dancing – which I’m nor sure has anything to do with rhubarb at all.
There was rhubarb fudge, rhubarb brownies, rhubarb tarts and rhubarb chocolate. The classics were of course in evidence. Rhubarb pie and rhubarb crumble, my all time favourite rhubarb dish. The fabulous stuff itself was of course for sale – from Oldroyd’s farm, our next stop.
Oldroyd’s rhubarb farm
E.Oldroyd & Sons Ltd. have 5 generations of experience in forced rhubarb production and each year people from far and wide flock to their farm at Carlton to see the rhubarb growing in the dark being harvested by candlelight. You can only visit between January to March and only as part of the rhubarb festival.
The company one of the country’s largest producers of rhubarb and many celebrity chefs have made visits to the Oldroyd’s. Chefs love Oldroyd’s delicate forced rhubarb as it retains the most beautiful pink colour even when cooked. Outdoor rhubarb tends to go a sludgey green colour although it still tastes amazing.
I had some rhubarb sauce on my pork bap in the Wakefield cathedral cafe and it remained a vibrant pink.
The Forcing Sheds
The huge wooden forcing sheds house hundreds of rows of rhubarb. The plants grow in the dark and while it is being ‘forced, the plant feeds only on the glucose in its own rhizome. The rhizomes store the plants energy and so they don’t need any soil only water. It is a strange sight to see them all lined up in the shed like a little terracotta army, not even planted in soil. They look a bit like baby Triffids. You can imagine they may get up and start to move about!
Picked by hand by candle light the crop creates an other-wordly atmosphere in the shed. If you listen you can hear the plants growing as the little buds pop, pop, pop. They grow about an inch a day.
Growing early rhubarb in this way is a recognised method. It has been registered and certificated as a product of designated origin. Much like champagne can only be called champagne if it comes from the champagne region, Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb can only come from right here in the rhubarb triangle.
At the helm of the Oldroyd’s empire is Janet Oldroyd Hume, who runs the business with her family. She has seen the rhubarb production business through good times and bad and just now, rhubarb is is on the up! ‘People can’t get enough of it.’ says Janet.
Rhubarb – a fascinating vegetable.
Janet has become affectionately known by the media as the ‘High Priestess of Rhubarb.’ What Janet doesn’t know about rhubarb just isn’t worth knowing! Oldroyd’s supply top chefs in London for their restaurants. Premium cosmetics and perfume companies also use Yorkshire rhubarb in their manufacturing process. In fain the Molton Brown’s Rhubarb and rose collection and in the luxury Noble Isle brand too. I bought a rhubarb and rose candle which I am looking forward to igniting.
The history of rhubarb
Rhubarb comes from southern Siberia. Originally found growing on the banks of the river Volga the plant was first used as a medicinal product. Used in Chinese medicine for centuries, rhubarb reached across the world, transported along the famous silk road. There are many different types of rhubarb.
The medicinal type is full of potassium and has antibacterial properties. It was used for people with stomach, liver and lung problems. It was also given cure constipation and administered to tuberculosis sufferers. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth the ‘bitter pill’ referred to was rhubarb. Medicinal rhubarb was given to Henry VIII on his death bed for his syphilis and his leg ulcers .
Marco Polo brought rhubarb to Europe. First cultivated in bulk by the Russian Czars, rhubarb was then shipped overseas. Apparently Catherine the Great had very good rhubarb roots.
Rhubarb was valuable back then and worth three times the price of opium. It’s value was once measured against gold.
Rhubarb in England
Rhubarb has had its part to play here in England. During the war it grew plentifully and was used to bulk out other foods during rationing. This was because Rhubarb takes on the flavour of whatever is cooked with. However, with sugar in short supply it was probably still very tart. Even cheap red wine had rhubarb juice added to it to make more.
Packed with Polyphenols, which kill free radicals in the body rhubarb can help to prevent the development of cancerous cells. It can also thin the blood preventing the development of blood clots. Janet has it every morning stewed in a bit of pure orange juice with some yoghurt. Used by man since 2000 years before the birth of Christ, Rhubarb is the ultimate in organic artisan food production. A special plant with a fascinating story to tell.