The suggestion that we eat anything ‘forced’ might ring alarm bells, but forcing rhubarb is a traditional way of bringing homegrown colour to this point in the calendar. It’s a West Yorkshire speciality, as a combination of the right soil, easily available coal for heating, the ideal weather and good transport links make the area perfect for the job.
In forcing, the rhubarb grows without soil or light. Rhubarb crowns are grown outdoors for two years, becoming dormant in the autumn. The mature crowns need stimulation by exposure to old-fashioned frost. They’re then packed on the floors of heated sheds in darkness. Warmth makes the rhubarb grow, and the darkness produces shoots that are paler and more tender than outdoor varieties.
Harvesting takes place by candlelight, and is labour-intensive and tricky. Careless harvesting encourages botrytis, which rots the crowns. It’s great that rhubarb is fashionable again and new converts are enjoying its versatility it’s good with smoked mackerel, for example. Simply dip 2in pieces of rhubarb in sugar and black pepper and roast at 200˚C/gas mark 5 for 10 minutes.
Leave to cool and keep all the juices, then serve with smoked mackerel or mackerel pâté. It also works with pork or braised lamb. If you’re more conventional, reacquaint yourself with that great staple, rhubarb crumble.
500g rhubarb, trimmed and sliced into 3cm pieces
100g caster sugar
200g plain flour
100g cold butter, cubed
125g demerara sugar
Preheat the oven to 180˚C/gas mark 4. Put the rhubarb in a two-pint ovenproof dish. Sprinkle the water and caster sugar over it.
Sift the flour into a bowl, add the butter and rub it in with your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the demerara sugar.
Spread the mixture over the rhubarb. Bake for 35–40 minutes or until the top is golden-brown and the rhubarb is bubbling through. Serve hot with cream, ice cream or custard.