Pure pieplant perfection
It may not actually be a fruit, but there’s much to enjoy about rhubarb, says MARY KEMP
IT’S THE end of the forced rhubarb season and it won’t be long now before it will be picked in fields and gardens. Rhubarb is the vegetable stalk of a large perennial herb with an uncanny ability to impersonate fresh fruit in the middle of winter.
It’s an ingredient that you either love or hate. For some it brings back unpleasant memories of school dinners; over-stewed, topped with a heavy crumble mix and served with lumpy custard, never cooked with enough sugar in it.
I have to say I grew up loving it; luckily I must have been spared those disastrous school puddings. I just remember picking it from the vegetable garden at home as it grew through old upside-down metal bushels that had lost their bottoms, forcing the plants to grow tall as well as protecting them from the frosts.
Then we had the pleasure of eating it, stirring proper custard through a bowl of the simply-stewed fruit. But, like many other ‘fruits’ we presume are very British, rhubarb is not at all.
We only started to really cook with it in the 18th century and the wild plant, closely related to wild dock and sorrel, actually originates from Siberia. For thousands of years it was known for its medicinal benefits.
Used by the Greeks and the Romans as dried roots, it was Marco Polo who was thought to have brought it to Europe as a type of medicine. It was recorded in Britain by the 16th century, purely in a medicinal context, as being good for stomach, colon and liver complaints as well as a laxative. (We now know there are a group of substances found in the root of rhubarb that have purgative powers.)
It only seems in recent years there has been a real rhubarb revival; for a long while it had a reputation for being a modest, homely ingredient, often known as the ‘pieplant’, but it’s so much more that! Here are two of my favourite recipes to enjoy and celebrate this wonderful ingredient.