The rhubarb process has always fascinated me, my father used to grow the maincrop variety in large amounts. At home we always had large bowls of cold stewed rhubarb and custard. But I did not realise what went into the growing of the only 'home grown' splash of colour on the greengrocers stand in January.
The day we filmed in Yorkshire it was very, very cold. Janet Oldroyd-Hulme enjoyed gently teasing me about being a 'soft southerner' that I maybe, but it was bloody cold.
The family have been growing forced rhubarb for years, and really know their stuff. The forcing sheds are a really eerie experience. All the work is done by candlelight to preserve the soft shoots from bolting. This is also to keep the leaves tight, yellow and in diamond shape. The process starts 2 years earlier when the 'crowns' are planted in the fields and left to grow, and store energy. They are then lifted, all soil removed and packed into forcing sheds from about the October onwards. From here on in they are not fed at all just watered. The crown will store enough energy to grow happily over the next few months without food, as it were.
As many as 20,000 crowns are packed into each shed, and will grow happily for the next few months until you have beautiful, pink blanched stems. Then all picked by hand. The season starts depending on the weather, in late December, but could be earlier. Then finishing about early March.
You could hear the 'popping' of the shoots forcing themselves out of the crowns, as we discussed the virtues of rhubarb with Janet in hushed tones. I felt like I was in church.
Once harvested the rhubarb is graded, packed and sent to the supermarkets. The distinctive packaging is fabulous, really traditional.
The rhubarb tours are very interesting so make sure you go on one if you can, they also have great tea and cake afterwards. The whole family get involved, it's really good to see.