Stewed rhubarb, ginger rhubarb jam, rhubarb tart – it all feels very British. So, you might be surprised to learn that rhubarb originated in China, where it was used as a drug to cure gut, liver and lung problems as early as 2700BC.
Marco Polo supposedly brought the plant to Europe in the thirteenth century where it became something of a hit – in 1657, the medicinal plant was worth three times the price of Opium in England.
It wasn’t until the mid 19th century that rhubarb began to creep into British kitchens though. In 1824, south Londoner, Joseph Myatt, who was a big producer of strawberries, persuaded people that if the bitter rhubarb stalks were combined with something sweet (like strawberries!) then it was delicious. This revelation coincided with sugar becoming available and affordable – so suddenly rhubarb tarts and pies were bang on trend.
Rhubarb production moved up t’north because of the quality Yorkshire soil. Demand grew and grew – trains heading south to London in the 1870s often transported 80-100 tons of rhubarb, sometimes making two trips a day to deal with the demand!
Although rhubarb popularity peaked in the Second World War, it’s making a come back in more inventive ways: rhubarb cheese, rhubarb spinach salad, fried pork tenderloin and rhubarb or mackerel with roasted rhubarb.
It all sounds delicious, but I decided to keep it simple with a rhubarb crumble. It seems particularly appropriate with both of them being WWII food (crumbles were invented during wartime rationing because they used less flour than pies).
(PS. If reading the above stirred some sort of rhubarb passion inside you, then check this out – worldwide rhubarb festivals where you can network with fellow rhubarb lovers!)
Ingredients (serves four)
Bowlful of rhubarb
Handful of sultanas
Zest of one orange
2 heaped tablespoons of corn flour
(for the topping)
120 grams flour
60 grams butter
60 grams sugar
It should be easy to get rhubard at most supermarkets at this time of year. Or, if you’re lucky enough to have parents that grow it, then go pull some up, chop off the top and bottom and give it a good scrub.
Cut the rhubarb into inch-long chunks. Stir in the orange zest, and sultanas – then sprinkle in the corn flour which will thicken the juices as the crumble cooks.
If you are the lucky owner of a kenwood chef, or anything with a K-beater then weigh out the flour, butter and sugar, put it in the mixing bowl and give it a quick whizz. If you aren’t so lucky, then just get your hands involved until you’ve got the topping into a nice breadcrumb consistency.
Put the crumble on a tray, and pop into a 180C oven for 40 minutes until the crumble is golden. Serve with cream, ice cream and custard…or all three.