Farm to fork: rhubarb won’t kill you, but it might get you a little drunk

Farm to fork is our new series that tells you everything you need to know about the fruit and veg that’s in season now. 

This month, it’s rhubarb. Gussy Aureli spoke to Victoria Drake from Grow Your Groceries about the Barney the Dinosaur of the herbaceous perennial world, including how to grow it, cook it, and magically turn it into gin.

How long is rhubarb in season for, and what varieties should we look out for?

Rhubarb is in season from early March to late June, with sweet and pink forced stems leading the way, followed by early varieties such as Timperley Early. By mid May, more or less any rhubarb variety is available to munch on.

What do first-time growers need to know?

Growing rhubarb is super easy as it’s a perennial, which means it comes back year after year with no extra effort on your part! You can start rhubarb from either seeds or crowns (dormant plants). I highly recommend starting with crowns, as they give you a head start of a few years on your harvests.

Plant the crown between November and March, with the growing tip (the knobbly top bit; it may be showing green or pink growth already) at soil level or protruding slightly above. It’s a good idea to toss a few spadefuls of well-rotted manure into the planting hole, as rhubarb is a hungry plant. Plant rhubarb crowns 60cm apart or in a big 50cm pot.

In the first year of growth, do not pick any stalks. In year two, pick a few from each plant before leaving it to grow on. In year three you can pick to your heart’s content throughout the season, taking care to always leave at least a third to half of the stems in place so the plant can continue to photosynthesise. The reason for this frustratingly long time to a proper harvest is that perennial plants will fruit for many years, but in order to ensure this we have to give them the time and energy to send their roots deep into the soil.

What are your favourite rhubarb recipes?

I personally ADORE a good rhubarb crumble. My dads recipe is super simple and adjustable to the size of your harvest:

  1. Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
  2. Pick, wash and chop your stems into 3cm lengths. 
  3.  Choose an oven proof dish that will accommodate them to a depth you like (for a saucier, more fruit-heavy crumble, make the rhubarb layer deeper) and sprinkle the rhubarb pieces with any good brown sugar — less if you prefer a more tart crumble, more if you like it sweet. Toss the pieces in your dish.
  4. Now make the crumble topping: mix granulated sugar, butter and flour in a 2/4/6 ratio, based on the size of your dish (eg. 50g sugar, 100g butter and 200g flour). 
  5. Rub these ingredients together with your finger tips until no butter lumps remain and distribute an even layer on top of the rhubarb. 
  6. Sprinkle with cinnamon if desired, then pop into the oven for about 30 minutes, or until the top of the crumble turns golden brown and the rhubarb below has become delightfully bubbly.
  7. Serve with Custard or ice cream.

I also love to just toss the chopped (sometimes peeled, if I can be bothered) stems into a pan with a small amount of water and sugar and stir over a medium heat until the stems are soft — this is divine served over Greek yoghurt.

And what if you’re after something a touch more boozy?

Gin is what you need! (And a little bit of patience…)

  1. Peel and chop a stem of rhubarb into small pieces
  2. Take two 500ml bottles and divide the chopped rhubarb between them, layering with a few tablespoons of granulated sugar. 
  3. Pour over with a gin of your choice, then seal. 
  4. Keep in a cool dark space and turn the bottles daily to gently mix the fruit and gin. 
  5. After a month or two strain out the rhubarb pieces and re-bottle the gin. Leave to sit for a further month before enjoying.

About those poisonous rumours — exactly how worried should we be?

Many people are afraid rhubarb is poisonous so let’s clear the air: rhubarb contains a compound called oxalic acid which is poisonous and is actually present in quite a few vegetables (spinach, kale and Swiss chard to name a few). 

In the small doses we consume these vegetables, most people handle the oxalic acid fine, but as with all things, moderation is key. If you exclusively ate spinach for a week, you may be at risk of oxalic acid poisoning. Thankfully, most of the oxalic acid in rhubarb is concentrated in the leaves, so by lopping off and composting them you’re saving lives! Basically, so long as you don’t eat rhubarb crumble for breakfast, lunch and dinner, you should be just fine. As with anything though, if you’re worried, consult your doctor.

What’s your favourite rhubarb fact?

Rhubarb has its very own version of the Bermuda Triangle, right here in the UK. It’s called the Rhubarb Triangle, and it’s a nine square mile area located between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell. 

This area is famous for its forced rhubarb and it’s where, in winter, they dig up rhubarb crowns and lay them in special rhubarb forcing sheds. In the darkness of these sheds, the confused crowns will give their energy to growing tender, pink stems which are renowned for their sweet, gentle flavour. They say the rhubarb grows so fast here that you can hear it squeaking and groaning as it grows, and it’s picked by candlelight — when you see the images, it’s incredibly eerie and atmospheric!

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Victoria Drake grew up in a smallholding in Suffolk where her parents grew much of their own fruits, vegetables and even meat. Now, after a brief stint in law enforcement, she runs Grow Your Groceries, which is based on her belief that everyone can grow a little of what they eat, no matter where they live — and it doesn’t need to be hard work!
Gussy Aureli is an editorial consultant who can be found blogging at gussyaureli.com.