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About A Week: Rhubarb

Peter Hinchliffe thrives on home-grown rhubarb.

Campaigners are seeking to win for Yorkshire-grown rhubarb the same special protected trading status granted to Champagne and Gorgonzola cheese.

Protected status, authorized by the European Union, promotes and protects food produced, processed and prepared in a specific geographical area using traditional methods.

Rhubarb is a plant with vivid red or pink stalks, depending on the variety, surmounted by a frond of green leaves. It can grow to half the height of a man.

The stalks are cooked and used in a variety of dishes, usually deserts. British members of Parliament recently feasted on rhubarb crumble to support the campaign.

Yorkshire rhubarb has been grown in what has become know as the "Rhubarb Triangle" since 1877. The Triangle is a frost pocket in the shadow of the Pennine hills between Leeds and Wakefield.

Rhubarb's beginnings have been traced back to Siberia on the banks of the River Volga. Water and freezing temperatures are essential to the growth of high quality tender rhubarb, and up to recent times there has been a plentiful supply of these in the Pennine foothills.

Janet Oldroyd Hulme, leading spokesperson and publicist for the cause, a fourth generation of the family firm E Oldroyd and Son told me that there are now only 12 commercial growers in the Triangle. In the 1930s there were 200 growers, but the majority went to the wall as Britain started to import more and more food from other parts of the world.

Janet, who wants clearer labeling of the Yorkshire product, comments, "People want English rhubarb but we have customers often saying they can only find Dutch rhubarb.

"What we want is our rhubarb to be clearly labeled as 'traditionally grown Yorkshire indoor rhubarb.' This way it makes a clear statement that says where it is grown and that it's different from outdoor rhubarb, because customers want to know what they are getting."

E Oldroyd's have 12 huge sheds in the Leeds-Wakefield area. The rhubarb stalks grow in darkness. When they are ready to be harvested workers gather them by armfuls in candlelight or torchlight.

The stalks grow at the rate of an inch a day -- so rapidly that buds make loud popping sounds as they burst, and there is a sinister creaking as the stalks expand.

To go into the darkened world of a rhubarb shed is to enter John Wyndham's world of the Triffids. His 1951 novel, "The Day of the Triffids," imagined a world overrun with poisonous ambulatory plants. Obviously rhubarb plants do not move around, but those creaking noises resulting from their rapid growth give a degree of credibility to Wyndham's fiction.

Janet Oldroyd Hulme explains that the plants spend two years outdoors before being moved into the heated sheds. The Triangle has the best soil, carefully prepared over many years, to encourage rhubarb to thrive.

While in the open air the plants store huge amounts of extra energy in their roots. Frost converts that carbohydrate into glucose, and that in turn speeds growth during the five or six weeks the plants are in the sheds.

In a normal year E Oldroyd's grow 1,000 tons of rhubarb, 200 tons of which is "forced" in the sheds. Britain has just experienced its warmest winter since records began, and the lack of frost means that this year there will only be 100 tons of "forced" rhubarb.

Janet's Member of Parliament, Edward Balls, is supporting her campaign for special status. Balls is economic secretary to the Treasury -- a key man in the team supporting Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer and odds-on favorite to be British Prime Minister within a matter of months.

The rhubarb campaign is featured on the MP's Web site:

Less than 30 United Kingdom food products have "European Union Protected Designation of Origin" status. In France, Germany, Italy and Spain there are hundreds of designated products.

The application for protected status for the pink spears of Yorkshire-grown rhubarb has been accepted by the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) for consideration before being passed on to the European Union for a final decision.

Janet Oldroyd Hulme points out that rhubarb is a healthy food. It has been found to stimulate metabolism and lower cholesterol levels.

"It's a great food for people who are dieting," says Janet. "I always have it for breakfast, with pure orange juice and a diet yoghurt on top of it. It cleanses and detoxifies the body. There's no need for colonic irrigation in Yorkshire when we have rhubarb."

Rhubarb is mostly eaten in pies or crumbles, or stewed. However it now features in dishes prepared by master chefs.

An annual rhubarb festival held in the town of Wakefield featured such dishes as vegetable soup with cheese and rhubarb croute; champagne and rhubarb sorbet; pan-fried duck breast with honey and rhubarb glaze; parsnip and rhubarb mash; and rhubarb timbale, topped off with gourmet crumble.


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