A Rare Breed. Janet Oldroyd Hulme and ‘Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb’
Climatic changes have impacted the agricultural landscape phenomenally over recent years and is inherent in the growth of forced rhubarb; it was a factor I was unaware of until I found myself wrapped up against the freezing elements, navigating the terrain of a forcing shed. In fact, frost and darkness are the optimum conditions for growth and so this sudden burst of cold weather set across the UK, for the rhubarb at least, is a blessing. The continuation of growth is vital, as forced rhubarb has become so endangered that what once started out as an industry of over 200 growers has now dwindled to just 9. The rhubarb triangle consists of a geographical area spanning Bradford, Leeds and Wakefield in the county of West Yorkshire, England. The term ‘Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb’ was given Protected Designation Origin status by the European Commission in 2010. Many things have determined this to be the optimum area for growth, geographical location to name one of them, the quality of the soil, to name the other. Positioned at the foot of the Pennines, the moisture content of the land is enhanced by the water running down from the surrounding hills and I am here to meet Janet Oldroyd Hulme, the woman at the top of the rhubarb pyramid, to witness the transition from an inherited tradition to a modern-day enterprise.
Following a succession of five generations, Janet’s father believed strongly in the sustainability of the land, by putting back what is taken out of it. Originally a medical scientist, Janet returned to E. Oldroyd and Sons Ltd, to preserve this legacy. Rhubarb, or Rheum rhabarbarum, as it is scientifically known, is by tradition a spring plant native to Siberia, originated not as a food but as a medicine dating all the way back to 2,700 BC. Historically, the roots were transported via the Silk Road from Siberia to China where it was formulated into an herbal remedy. Rhubarb leaves and roots contain Oxalic acid, which by all accounts are poisonous, but in small amounts the powder obtained from the roots were used to treat gut, liver and lung disorders for thousands of years. For this purpose, the medicine obtained from the root was first imported to the UK in the 13th century, but by the 16th century as the medicine was so very expensive the first seeds were brought in to produce the roots here. ‘After this time, modern medicine became paramount,’ Janet tells me, ‘and rhubarb as a medicine was forgotten about.’ From here its properties turned to food where it flourished and, rather cost effectively, grew in abundance. Rhubarb was so popular during the War that the Government curbed the price of forced rhubarb to one shilling per pound, so necessary were its health benefits regarded for the population. ‘After the Second World War the story changed,’ Janet tells me. ‘Rhubarb went out of favour, probably due to sugar rationing of this time, making rhubarb very tart for the sweet taste of the era. When transport refrigeration was introduced in the 1950’s, exotic fruits were brought in, casting rhubarb aside, this made its popularity decrease even further.’
As Janet walks me across the farm towards the forcing shed, it occurred to me that there is a cyclical nature to the popularity of foods that this renaissance is battling with. Here lies a societal inheritance of tastes as well as practice, and a renaissance it is, because rhubarb is making a comeback. ‘People are now more open to tart flavours,’ Janet tells me, unlocking a small door of the forcing shed before leading me inside. ‘There is also a health implication, because people have cut down on the amount of sugar in their diets.’ This is where the attributes of Forced Rhubarb are noted. Grown in the dark, the plant grows faster than traditional plants, forcing its way upwards in search of the light needed to make glucose with chlorophyll, normally obtained by the process of photosynthesis. In the dark sheds this is impossible. The plant instead utilises the energy store, which was laid down over two summers, in the root as carbohydrate. The frost naturally converts this to glucose whilst in the outdoor field, prior to being lifted and brought into the forcing sheds. Thus, frost is an important stage to the process. Due to being grown in the dark, the resultant sticks are very tender, and by utilising its roots glucose store for growth, the flavour is much sweeter and less acidic than can ever be obtained with outdoor grown rhubarb.
Due to this unique flavour complexity, it is treasured by chefs across the industry. Discovered by accident in 1817, by the horticulturalists of Chelsea Physic Garden in London, the rhubarb plant was accidently grown in darkness. On tasting it they discovered its characteristics to be far superior than any rhubarb grown before. ‘Market Gardeners of the time, engaged in growing fruit and vegetables commercially here in Yorkshire, were looking for something to grow and harvest in winter,’ Janet tells me. ‘The technique we use today was developed here in the rhubarb triangle where the conditions required to produce high quality and yields proved to be perfect. The production in other areas of the country simply could not compete, and died out leaving Yorkshire to be regarded as the centre of the world for Forced Rhubarb production. Special sheds were erected, and the growers multiplied within the Triangle to over 200.’ There are many ways in which she is cultivating the history of this practice and Janet holds public tours in order to foster interest and educate people. ‘You can actually hear it growing,’ she says, as she walks me through the forcing shed, following the same footsteps as a guided tour. We are met with rows of roots covering the floor of the shed like a carpet. ‘The buds on the surface of the roots swell as the stick inside grows up and pushes through. The sound you can hear is the pop of the first leaf breaking through.’
To add to the mystery, and thanks to a series of spectacular photographs online, people are often drawn to the candles, wrongly deemed to be an integral part of the growing process. ‘Candles are not used to grow the crop,’ Janet says. In fact, total darkness is necessary. ‘The candle illuminates the area that they’re picking without causing damage to the rest of the shed.’ It is a meticulous balance, passed down to her through generations. As she points out a heater in the corner of the shed, thermostatically controlling the temperature, it is clear that modern-day growth has been made easier in many ways, but there is still a heavy reliance upon tradition and heritage. ‘It’s done by knowledge and understanding, gained over generations,’ Janet says. ‘It’s not guess-work anymore.’ Following in their footsteps, the key elements retained are productivity and sustainability. The soil is still treated with ‘shoddy’, a biproduct of wool from the 19th century textile mills that would usually have gone to waste. Its high levels of nitrogen, created upon decay, acts as a natural fertiliser. Careful consideration is applied to the picking, a delicate process done entirely by hand, whereby the index finger is pushed three-inches down the side of the root before it is gently twisted and pulled. The only machine required, is used in the removal of the root from the ground. Taking into account the authentic process and labour costs, there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s an expensive practice. This culture has been challenged in recent years, threatening the very survival of its heritage.
As I walk through the shed I find myself hit with a sense of catharsis. There’s a delicacy to it, a tenderness, which combined with the ambience of the forcing shed and candlelight, leads to quite a humbling experience. I’m not alone in this feeling. ‘On the tours, people don’t want to wake it up,’ Janet says. ‘They start talking really quietly.’ As with all industries that pass down through generations, there is a constant conversation between the past and the future, but quite often the greatest successes, are those that are a combination of the two. By retaining this custom, they haven’t deviated away from traditional methods but are two generational styles of working in action; the precision of modern agriculture supported by the culture of the past. The greatest legacy of this heritage lies in the working of the land, the perseverance that’s required to sustain it, leading to the continuation of Forced Rhubarb for future generations.
Louise Leverett is a writer and novelist currently living in London. She has recently completed a diploma in ‘Advanced Gastronomy’ at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Follow her on Instagram @louiseleverett