I’m being a bit quiet again aren’t I? Let’s remedy that right now!
In truth I’ve been a bit busy with the old sewing machine type thing recently. Lots of ideas to try out, plenty of lovely things to be made and then a rather odd request from a friend this morning……….
‘Can you make me something to wear in my jacket lapel this weekend?’ said he, ‘ It’s the rhubarbfest and I want to be suitably attired. I know you’ll come up with the goods. Help; Please!!!!!!!’
Well how can you resist such a polite ‘ask’? I know I couldn’t…….. 😉
And what is this ‘Rhubarbfest’? Why would someone be wanting a rhubarb related accessory so desperately?
Now would probably be a good time to go make yourself a coffee before you kick off your shoes, sit back and listen to my little tale. Let me try to explain the reason behind his predicament……
I’ve mentioned at least once that I live in Leeds; A biggish city located in the heart of West Yorkshire. What I may not have mentioned before though is that this was once part of a mighty empire – The Rhubarb Triangle!
Geographically, this triangular plot of land covered an area of about 30 square miles and united the major conurbations of Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield in the production of 90% of all rhubarb grown in Britain – if not the world! When the industry was at its height, up to 200 tonnes of this weird and wonderful vegetable would be transported to the nation’s capital on a daily basis via the ‘Rhubarb Express’, a train service created specifically to get the product to market quickly and efficiently to meet the phenomenally high demand for it – Rhubarb grown in the ‘triangle’ rapidly became known for its exceptional quality and some would say that traditionally forced Yorkshire Rhubarb did for the rhubarb industry what champagne did for the wine industry.
And why did it grow so well in this little triangle of ours?
‘The soil was good; there were plentiful
and cheap supplies of coal to heat the forcing sheds; there
was lots of manure and composting material available from
the horse-drawn traffic of the town, the sewage works and
slaughterhouses, and particularly the woollen mills for shoddy
and other by-products all of which contributed nitrogen. And
the climate was perfect for rhubarb. A touch of frost in the
autumn would get the roots into top condition for bringing on
in the sheds.’
an extract from ‘Rhubarbaria’ by Mary Prior. Prospect Books 2009
This ‘forcing’ that I speak of – Sounds a bit barbaric doesn’t it? Let me explain……..
The main growing season for Yorkshire Rhubarb is in the depths of Winter. The whole process starts outside and then gets moved into huge, low ceilinged, candlelit sheds – here it’s much warmer and the rhubarb plants are fooled into thinking that Spring has arrived; They start to grow in this near darkness producing long, pale pink stalks with a delicate taste – Champagne Rhubarb; Available from late December through to the end of March.
And who came up with this marvellous idea of ‘forcing’ rhubarb to grow in purpose built sheds at odd times of the year? That would be Joseph Whitwell of Kirkstall – In 1877 he was documented as being the first person to have the idea of building sheds that would be solely used for growing this magnificent vegetable. And all that happened less than five minutes away from where I now live!!!!!
As children, my mum and dad would take us on long rambling walks to various places in the locality. A popular stopping off point on the way back home from our adventures was nearly always the rhubarb field just a short trek down the road from where we lived for a spot of ‘Tusky kipping’ – pilfering stalks of rhubarb to take back home and make into a pie, crumble or just to dip raw into sugar and munch until you had stomache ache! Who would have thought that we could have been nibbling on the remnants of an important piece of local history?
Sadly, I don’t remember any forcing sheds from my younger days – they were probably already long gone. Eventually the tusky field made way for lettuce crops before the land was purchased by Leeds Metropolitan University. These days it’s mainly used as a training ground for our city Rugby team, The Leeds Rhinos. Not a single sign exists that would indicate that it was once the hub of a thriving industry 😦
I read somewhere that the only way to go when you’re at the height of your success is down; This appears to have been the case for Yorkshire forced rhubarb. Once a staple food for so many, it saw a decline during the second world war when sugar became an increasingly scarce commodity – Rhubarb needs sugar to make it more palatable! With the opening up of overseas trade and an increase in the number of imports of exotic fruit and vegetables during the fifties and sixties the deal was finally sealed. Rhubarb was no longer King! Businesses closed and land was sold; The once mighty empire shrunk considerably and now covers a mere 9 square miles of land between Morley, Rothwell and Wakefield.
But all is not lost! On 25 February 2010, Champagne Rhubarb grown in the triangle was awarded protected status under the product name of ‘Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb’. Basically, if it’s not been grown in that tiny little plot of just 9 square miles then it hasn’t earned it’s stripes 😉
These days, the forcing sheds at Wakefield have become a bit of a tourist attraction and every February there’s a Rhubarb festival in the city to honour and celebrate the once mighty vegetable. This year, the festival takes place between 22nd and 24th February; Hence the eleventh hour request for a rhubarb related accessory for my friend who plans to attend the event 🙂
You can find out more about the festival here:
And finally, what of that rhubarb related accessory? Did I manage to ‘come up with the goods’? I don’t know; You decide 😉