I’ve spent a great deal of the bank holiday weekend cooking: two types of muffin, cheesecake, bread, meringues, fish pie, quiche and barbecue sauces, since you ask. And today, Sunday-style lunch for my guests before they depart, with rhubarb crumble.
I live just outside what is known as the ‘rhubarb triangle’, a smallish area near Wakefield in West Yorkshire famous for early ‘forced’ rhubarb. In Lincolnshire, too, rhubarb has always thrived. It seems to like cold, wet regions with severe winters. When I was growing up, every garden had a crown or two of rhubarb. The forced rhubarb industry uses heated, dark, forcing sheds to encourage the rhubarb plants to mature early and pickers have traditionally harvested the stalks by candlelight to preserve their sweetness; but generations of amateurs have employed the simpler method of planting it in a sheltered spot and placing an old tin bucket or a more picturesque terracotta bell over one of the crowns.
Rhubarb was a family staple; even though my mother detested it, she would cook it for everyone else. Her first job, in 1945, was quality control technician at the local canning factory, where rhubarb was processed in bulk. (It was war-time, and jobs were plentiful: I believe her main qualification for this was that her school leaving certificate said that she’d studied biology!) Years later she confessed that she’d never had known if there was something wrong with the rhubarb, because it all tasted poisonous to her. I think that it’s one of those foods, like Marmite and peanut butter, that you either adore or loathe.
I’ve always found it rather an enigmatic – fruit or vegetable? I’m not sure which it is. To me, there’s always been something rather mysterious and exotic about it. There’s even poetry in the names of many of the varieties: German Wine, Riverside Giant, Valentine, Sunrise.
One thing’s certain: you eat the stalks and not the leaves, which contain such poisons as oxalic acid. You’d have to eat a lot of very unpalatable leaves to die, however, though boiling the leaves with soda apparently increases their toxicity.
My imagination is caught: the means by which a murderer might do away with someone by serving up a tasty crumble, laced with pulped rhubarb leaves and soda. Ms. James, in the dining room, with neither rope nor lead piping in sight. 😉