Friday, 11 March 2016

Into the darkness

The world of rhubarb growing is a dark one. Melonie Clarke asks Yorkshire grower Janet Oldroyd Hulme to shed some light on the matter

Written by Melonie Clarke
rhubarb-176-2Grown in darkness, popping and creaking, with just candlelight to help show the way, the world of Yorkshire forced rhubarb is a mysterious one.

‘I know my father says he remembers clearly the day he knew what he wanted to do,’ Janet Oldroyd Hulme tells me.

‘It was always a secret world, that of the Rhubarb Triangle [a ninesquare- mile area of West Yorkshire]. In particular, children weren’t allowed in the sheds. I remember my father telling me about the day his grandfather took him by the hand, into the forcing sheds, into a secret world. He said he just couldn’t believe the sight in front of him. And he said he knew then that’s what he wanted to do,’ she says.

She tells me about her first time going into the sheds.

‘My father was a bit easier with children but we didn’t go in on our own, out of respect for him. He was always there when we went in. I used to find it amazing, but being a small girl I didn’t like to venture too far away from his hand into the dark, because it’s pitch black in there without the candlelight to show the way.’

Forced rhubarb is grown in complete darkness except for the odd flicker of candlelight.

Janet comes from a long line of Yorkshire forced rhubarb growers. ‘The family has been growing rhubarb for five generations now,’ she says. ‘My brother and I became involved with the business and now my two sons have decided it’s what they want to do. Seeing things grow and producing an item that is of such quality is very rewarding.’

Her family’s firm, E Oldroyd & Sons Ltd, grows and sells rhubarb, amongst other vegetables and fruit, and is one of the biggest rhubarb producers in the country, turning out 1,000 tons a year, 200 tons of which is forced rhubarb.

This method was first developed in the early 1800s. The plants are left to grow outside for two years without being harvested, storing energy from the sun in their roots during this time. After going through their first frost they are moved into the forcing sheds to grow in darkness, using the energy stored in the roots.

Janet started working for the family business in 1979 after the birth of her and husband Neil’s first son. ‘When I left college it wasn’t the done thing for daughters [to go into the family business] – fathers wanted other things for their daughters, so I became a medical scientist. I didn’t leave St James’s Hospital, Leeds, where I was situated, until the birth of my eldest son, nearly 36 years ago now.’

What was it that made Janet want to get back to her ‘roots’?

‘I think it’s something in your blood, basically. A passion that’s there, a passion that’s bred into you.’

So why force rhubarb when it can also grow outdoors?

‘Forcing it gives it a much sweeter flavour,’ Janet explains. ‘It’s much more delicately flavoured and it doesn’t require as much sugar. The more access it has to light, the thicker the root, but you don’t want tough vegetables. As far as I know it’s only rhubarb, chicory and asparagus that will work with this method.’

When the forcing method was first discovered in 1817 it was also a way for people to have access to fresh produce in winter.

‘They would have only had stored fruit and the longer you store fruit, the more nutrients it loses, so here they had a plant they grew one day and was potentially available the next.’

rhubarb-590-2Forced rhubarb – by candlelight!

The speed at which the root develops means you can actually hear the plant growing.

‘Rhubarb grows very quickly. It can grow up to an inch a day, so you hear that initial pop and then you can hear the creaking of the sticks as they’re growing. You can see all of the buds swelling and stretching and eventually popping like a pea pod and then it grows up quickly because it’s looking for light.

‘It’s an eerie, dark world. You just stand there and you hear a slight noise behind you and think, “What’s that?” Some people say it has quite a religious feel to it, maybe because of the candles. It’s quite a beautiful picture.’

Despite the vegetable being a native of Siberia, the name Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb now has protected status. In 2010 it was awarded Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the European Commission’s Protected Food Name scheme, following years of campaigning by Janet.

So what does the lady who grows rhubarb like to make with it?

‘A rhubarb panna cotta, it’s absolutely brilliant. I also like rhubarb cooked in pure orange juice – you should never immerse rhubarb in water; it’ll absorb the water and dilute the flavour, so you just wipe it with damp kitchen roll. I use that every morning for breakfast with a low-fat yogurt. Rhubarb is a metabolic stimulator so it’s the best time of the day to take it.’

Being an authority on the subject of this intriguing vegetable, Janet is affectionately known as the High Priestess of Rhubarb.

‘I do take it that it’s meant in a nice way, so yeah, I think I should be honoured to have that title. ‘The reason I take people on tours of the forcing sheds is to educate them about the benefits of eating rhubarb. I believe the way to get people to eat British produce is to show them what we do and how we get that better flavour.’

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