Rhubarb, Rheum rhabarbarum, has been a failure in our garden. Or perhaps I should say we have failed Rheum rhabarbarum. After a very promising start when we grew six or eight plants from seed and watched them grow to maturity, we neglected to harvest any of the stalks and watched the plants die one by one for reasons we have never been able to determine. I have keen to try growing rhubarb again but am too ashamed to mention this desire to Richard.
When I occasionally see rhubarb in our local greengrocer I sail past it without even thinking of buying it and making something delicious with it. Rhubarb, after all, should be grown in the garden and not bought packaged in miserable polystyrene punnets.
However when I recently stumbled upon an enormous bunch of organic rhubarb in Haenertsberg in Limpopo I could not resist it.
It was clear from the size of the bunch that there was far too much for just one dessert. What was I going to do with this rather large bunch of rhubarb? I can’t remember ever actually cooking rhubarb. I had liked the idea of cooking it, I had had little fantasies about walking down the garden path to pick the lovely pink stalks and making a tangy pie, but all I had done was kill the half dozen plants that were going to turn into potential pies.
Naturally some online research was in order – and Google come up with the goods.
The first recipe that caught my eye was for rhubarb posset. I adore lemon posset. Lemon posset has been a familiar food on our narrowboat trips since the year my daughter first made it when she was drawn to a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe in The Guardian.
I was aware that possets have been around for centuries although not quite in the form familiar to us denizens of the 21st century. I got a little sidetracked reading up on the history of possets, learning that possets were both enjoyed as a dessert and used medicinally. In the process I found myself reading more than just a few posts on this engaging blog, British Food: A History.
Rhubarb it seems has even more ancient roots than medieval posset. It was also used medicinally although in this instance in Tibet - thousands of years ago. It was grown in China too, but according to James Beard in Beard on Food, Siberia gave us the more common variety of rhubarb that we know and grow.
I was further sidetracked by the accounts of growing rhubarb in the Yorkshire rhubarb triangle.
After spending a couple of hours in cyber space I realised time was ticking by so I put my mind to getting the rhubarb cooked. I was rather taken by a recipe for lamb cutlets cooked with rhubarb. We were planning to cook Gemsbok shanks that night and it seemed this very English lamb recipe was just begging to be translated into a hearty Limpopo supper particularly suited to a misty rainy day.
We cooked the Gemsbok shanks for about six hours in a very low oven on a bed of chopped onions and rhubarb, flavoured with star anise and black pepper, with a generous splash of balsamic vinegar.
At the same time, although not for the six hours allotted to the shanks, we roasted the balance of the rhubarb with castor sugar.
In the end, it was hard for me to give up the idea of the posset. I wasn’t sure we had the right cream so we made a rhubarb fool by folding the baked, cooled rhubarb into whipped cream which we poured into long-stemmed glasses and refrigerated overnight. It made the most unexpected yet exquisite and festive breakfast. Just the thing for a Monday morning.
I am now very keen to get back to Patience (and the UK) as soon as possible to get some of that perfectly pink forced Yorkshire rhubarb. The season I believe starts in December and ends in March. Very chilly weather to be cruising the canals, I think. But perhaps we’ll attempt growing rhubarb in our suburban Johannesburg garden again. As James Beard says, ‘ Rhubarb is one of our first and great garden delights. It should not be forgotten.’
I’m going to need a large and regular supply of rhubarb. Some of the must-make rhubarb recipes on my list are:
- Yotam Ottolenghi’s Roasted rhubarb with sweet labneh
- Yotam Ottolenghi’s Beetroot and rhubarb salad with gorgonzola
- Kate Carter’s rhubarb with marscapone
- Allegra McEvedy’s rhubarb tarte tatin
- Jeanne Horak-Druiff’s white chocolate cheesecake with rhubarb
- The British Larder’s baklava with rhubarb and rose delights (love the idea of combining rhubarb and rose)
- Niamh Shields’ rhubarb cordial
- April Bloomfield’s rhubarb fool scented with rose and cardamom and
- Sumayya Jamil’s rhubarb, marigold and cardamom samosas