The Mail on Sunday
Achtung der Rhabarber!
Waitrose forced to import German rhubarb grown in gibberellic acid for Delia’s ‘British’ rhubarb and ginger brulée
WHEN Delia Smith declared in a Waitrose promotion that this year’s British rhubarb season was the best she’d ever known, the effects were dramatic.
Shoppers quickly fell on the slender stems in their eagerness to recreate Queen Delia’s rhubarb and ginger brulée. But because of the cold weather, the rhubarb harvest has been limited – and Waitrose did not have enough.
Now, in order to meet the staggering demand, Waitrose has had to import ‘der Rhabarber’ from Germany, some of it treated with gibberellic acid, a plant hormone used to trigger artificially fast growth.
And British rhubarb growers have slammed the retail giant, saying it has damaged their plant’s reputation by importing inferior foreign produce.
Growers in the ‘ Rhubarb Triangle’ – a nine-squaremile patch between Bradford, Wakefield and Leeds in West Yorkshire – claim to produce the best rhubarb.
Janet Oldroyd, of the Yorkshire Rhubarb Growers Association, said: ‘I have had people ringing me and asking why they can’t get hold of English rhubarb. And the reason is that the cold winter delayed both the outdoors and forced rhubarb production in this country.
‘I can’t understand why Waitrose has publicised this rhubarb recipe at a time when it is difficult getting both forced and outdoors-grown rhubarb in the UK.
‘The rhubarb grown using acid does not taste the same or as nice as ours.
‘We have been growing rhubarb for four generations and my father tried it with the acid years ago and said he would never have it in the place again.’
Delia came up with her troublesome dessert as part of a promotional campaign for Waitrose in which she features alongside Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal. She wrote on the supermarket’s website: ‘I have to say that, after 40 years of devising crumbles, tarts, trifles and other uses for rhubarb, this season’s offering has claimed the top spot.’
But reserves were already short because of the record low temperatures this winter and in the first four days of the supermarket’s campaign the company sold as much of the crop as it normally sells in 12 weeks – enough for 61,000 brulées.
It forced Waitrose bosses to think the unthinkable and look beyond the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’ – to the Fatherland. Despite equally cold winters in Germany and Holland, rhubarb there is flourishing because much of it is covered in tunnels or ‘fleeces’ to ensure a crop in time for spring.
However, Waitrose also imported ‘forced’ rhubarb, which is removed from the ground to grow in its final months in heated sheds.
‘Forced’ rhubarb develops much faster on the Continent than in the UK because it is often sprayed with plant hormone gibberellic acid to trigger artificial growth.
The acid, which is harmless and naturally occurring, is not used by most British suppliers because some believe that the protein affects the taste.
Waitrose has signed a three-year deal with Delia and Heston Blumenthal, who are filming a series of TV adverts as well as appearing on billboards and in magazine adverts. Waitrose intends to broadcast one of the adverts featuring its celebrity ‘food ambassadors’ every week for the rest of the year, with some of the commercials running for the entire length of the ad break – three-and-ahalf minutes.
A Waitrose spokeswoman said yesterday: ‘We have a policy of sourcing British food when we can, but the sales were so extreme that we had to source from abroad. It is a mixture of outdoor and indoor-grown rhubarb.
‘By the middle of this week, all of the rhubarb will be outside-grown. Gibberellic acid is naturally occurring and makes no difference to the taste.’
Rhubarb has been a staple of the British diet since the 18th Century. After falling out of favour in postwar years, the plant has come back into fashion, with enthusiasts including Sex And The City star Kim Cattrall, model Jodie Kidd and pop diva Kylie Minogue – not to mention celebrity chefs Marco Pierre White and Jamie Oliver.
Its popularity was further secured when researchers discovered that rhubarb, like many red vegetables, contains cancer-killing chemicals. And baking rhubarb for 20 minutes – as is required for a crumble or pie – dramatically increases the chemicals’ concentration.
The plant’s revival culminated in February with the European Commission awarding Yorkshire forced rhubarb Protected Designation of Origin status.
The ‘Delia effect’ first struck in the late Seventies, with her landmark cookbook and TV series Delia’s Complete Cookery Course. She mentioned a lemon zester gadget and within weeks, in her words, ‘the whole of Europe sold out’.
In the Nineties, Delia described a 10in metal pan made by a struggling Lancashire firm as ‘a little gem’. The firm had to take on extra staff to make 90,000 pans in just four months. In the same series, egg sales rose by 54million after Delia showed how to boil and fry them properly.