Chefs love Yorkshire forced rhubarb - we find out why it is so good!

The  Staff Canteen

In the heart of West Yorkshire, forced rhubarb has been produced since the late 1800’s. The 9-square miles where the rhubarb is best grown is known as the ‘rhubarb triangle’ and had over 200 operating pickers who once supplied 90% of the world’s winter forced rhubarb. The Staff Canteen spoke to one of the last pickers in the area, Robert Tomlinson. robert tomlinsonRobert Tomlinson, from Tomlinson Rhubarb, is a fourth generation grower of Yorkshire forced rhubarb. When it was first introduced in the 1800’s there was over 200 operating pickers now he is one of just 12 who are left and based in the rhubarb triangle where they have to stick to strict rules including using original forcing sheds. He explained: “It is an area in which the soil is perfect for the growth of rhubarb and it lies between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield. “Unlike outdoor rhubarb, the forced rhubarb is grown and then put into forcing sheds where it is ‘tricked’ to believe it is spring and grows in complete darkness.” The process of growing forced rhubarb takes two years, the roots are planted outside and after two summers as well as exposure to the cold they are then dug up. Robert explains how digging up the forced rhubarbs can be 'back breaking work'. He said: "The roots we are fetching can be 50 or 60 kilos. At the end of the day a bit of hard work doesn't matter because we love what we do." Once dug up the roots are put into forcing sheds where Robert and his team 'keep the roots warmrhubarb and candle low res and watered' to trick them into thinking its spring. It grows looking for light using the energy it saved up over the two years of being outside. Rhubarb can grow an inch in a day and one shed usually produces a thousand boxes. Robert and his team are looking for a deep red colour and then the crop is harvested by candlelight to allow smaller roots more growth time in the forcing sheds - they try and pick it to order so it is as fresh as possible and can be in the kitchen within 24 hours. “We are growing it almost exactly the same way as my great granddad did, back in the 1880’s," he explained. "There is no other way to do it.” Rhubarb now has a PDO or Protected Designation of Origin which means if you want Yorkshire forced rhubarb it has to be grown within the triangle. The intense process begins in January of each year and runs until April or May dependent on how early the spring is. Robert also tells The Staff Canteen, how his family have never missed a year since they started forcing rhubarb.

>>> Feeling inspired? See all of our rhubarb recipes here

He believes that forced rhubarb is so popular as it has its 'own flavour', he said: "It's unlike anything else and its not like strawberries you can get anytime of the year, it’s seasonal you can only get it for three or four months of the year.” robert rhubarb quoteAs forced rhubarb is a seasonal product, over the years Robert has gathered a clientele among many Michelin star chefs and restaurants including Tom Kitchin, Tommy Banks and James Mackenzie. He added: “There are others but we supply indirectly so catering companies, some which are in London, Claridges, all over really.” When The Staff Canteen asked Robert what his favourite dish was using the forced rhubarb his said: “Well, you’ve got me there! It’s got to be the traditional mothers crumble, it sounds very good doesn’t it!” Robert believes that the best way to make forced rhubarb is in it’s most traditional form and has no current plans to change the way in which he grows and picks it. He is currently operating five forcing sheds and is hoping to open two or three more within the next year. By Lauren Wiggins

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 17th March 2016

Chefs love Yorkshire forced rhubarb - we find out why it is so good!