Forced rhubarb

Harvesting Rhubarb 'Timperley Early' by candelight in the forcing shed at Oldroyds, Yorkshire - © Jonathan Buckley/GAP Photos

Harvesting Rhubarb ‘Timperley Early’ by candelight in the forcing shed at Oldroyds, Yorkshire – © Jonathan Buckley/GAP Photos

It’s the veg that thinks it’s a fruit, the crop that can be carelessly transformed into a brown injustice in the kitchen – and one of the most valuable early spring foods that a gardener can grow. Welcome to the hot pink celebration that is forced rhubarb.

It’s been said that you can literally hear the stems grow and, standing in the forcing sheds of this Yorkshire farm, you could well believe it. Forced rhubarb was discovered by accident, when spoil from a ditch was mistakenly thrown over some plants at the Chelsea Physic Garden. As the buried stems stretched their way through the deep earth, the lack of light made them more tender and pink – a boon to the kitchen gardener. Now we force vast swathes of them commercially in dark sheds, lit only by candlelight.

Emulating this at home is simple if you have access to a good patch of rhubarb. Lift healthy sections of established early varieties in late winter, once harsh penetrating frosts have given this veg its required winter chill. Pack the fleshy roots into a large tub or bucket, filling in any gaps with compost. Water lightly, allow to drain, and then stand your container in a shed or garage. The subtle temperature change will kick start growth and, within a week or two, buds will swell, eventually bursting to release inch upon inch of tender, cerise stems. Once 30cm or so high, a gentle tug and twist at the base will release the shoots, at which point the cooks among you can gently poach your way towards a culinary celebration – with not a jot of brown in sight.