You might be surprised to learn that rhubarb is a vegetable – not a fruit. It was first recorded in 2,700BC in China, where it was used for medicinal purposes and it's thought it was brought to Europe by Marco Polo in the 13th century.
It was first used in English cooking in the late 18th century but the flavour only found favour when the forcing process was discovered in Chelsea Physic Gardens in 1817. The roots of a rhubarb vegetable were accidentally covered with soil one winter. When the soil was removed weeks later, tender shoots had grown and were found to have an exquisite flavour and quality.
Commercial growers then began growing or blanching rhubarb by covering it with soil or manure, and by the 1870s the forcing of rhubarb had become popular in Yorkshire, where the first heated ‘dark sheds’ were built solely for that purpose.
As the quality of the Yorkshire crop became renowned, and demand for it grew, the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’ between Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford became the centre for the world’s production of forced rhubarb, which commanded much higher prices than its more bitter outdoor-grown equivalent.
Rhubarb is first planted outside, where it grows for two years, storing energy in its roots. After its second summer, the roots are lifted by hand and moved inside dark sheds and kept at a temperature of around 13c. Kept well watered, the growing process using the stored energy is then so fast that in early January the stalks can be heard creaking and popping as they shoot up towards the minimal light available. Some grow so fast that they can measure 2ft long within just four weeks.
The intensive harvest process lasts less than seven weeks from January through to February. The rhubarb is picked daily by hand and lit by only candlelight, which stimulates growth in the smaller shoots left behind.
Janet Oldroyd joined her family's rhubarb-growing business in 1979. Her father, Ken, expanded Oldroyd’s production, at a time when forced rhubarb had become a dying industry. He formed the Yorkshire Rhubarb Growers cooperative to support growers as research into new varieties - Stockbridge Arrow, Stockbridge Harbinger and Cawood Delight - helped improve yield and quality to offset increasing costs and falling prices.
Today, the family produces almost 800 tonnes of outdoor rhubarb each year, and 200 tonnes indoors. Janet is acknowledged not only for growing but also for promoting rhubarb as part of the tourist attractions of the area.
“I take a real delight in promoting the crop through our rhubarb tours, which are really popular with tourists,” she says. “It always inspires me when people see the crop growing in our dark houses and are amazed to hear the crop growing. My mission is to educate the public as to the benefits this plant has to offer. Rhubarb is in our family’s blood, and hopefully I will be around to advise or inspire many more generations of Oldroyds to come.”