Every January to March, food bloggers, Instagrammers and magazines alike feverishly await the eruption of rhubarb onto supermarket shelves. The glorious Pepto Bismol pink of rhubarb compotes, jams, jellies and pies comes as a welcome antidote to the relentless greens, dirty browns, and insipid whites that define the vegetable world, the colour palette extending only as far as orange (unless you count beetroot, which is usually dirty and brown on the outside anyway). The rhubarb’s path to the glitzy world of Instafeeds, magazine shoots, and blog posts wasn’t, however, an easy one.
Incarcerated in a dark and lonely place, ostracise d by jealous peers, and finally belle of the ball, you might just mistake rhubarb’s story for Cinderella’s.
Neither considered a vegetable, which it technically is, nor a fruit – despite its legalisation as such in 1947 – rhubarb has never quite fitted in. The podgy potato, wonky carrot, and bald, stinky cabbage don’t really want the slender stalks of a blushing rhubarb upstaging them in the veg aisle. But that’s fine, because who likes greens anyway?
So the rhubarb sidles up to the fruit rack, desperate for some sense of belonging. But the endless crates of apples, their abundance, the I-need-something-sour Granny Smith’s, the because-it’s-one-of-your-five-a-day Pink Lady’s – no, they’re nothing against the exoticism of Spring’s rosy aperitif. Shunned by the apples, and positioned next to the bananas who are too wrapped up in themselves to care, the poor rhubarb doesn’t have two stalks to stand on.
And all this after the early trauma – endured by forced rhubarb anyway – of living life without daylight just so as to accentuate its sweetness and force a premature harvest. Deprived of light, never able to watch the sun set, or moon rise above their leafy heads, these poor, pale, skinny rhubarbs have the consolation only that they, at least, aren’t homegrown. Those avid, ruddy-cheeked gardeners, armed with their wellies, gardening gloves and how-to guides, partake in the act of forcing rhubarb by placing buckets over the poor seedlings. Not only starved of light, but now isolated from their peers with only the wriggling worms and scuttling beetles for company.
All is not lost, however, for the rhubarb has a ball to go to. Plucked from the earth, scrubbed and cleaned, and proudly presented somewhere between the vegetable and fruit aisles, rhubarb meets her fairy Godmother.
But here, our Cinderella story takes a peculiar turn… Rather than brandishing her magical wand, this fairy godmother is armed with a good chopping knife, a few spices and a spoonful (or 10 million) of sugar. Even the pumpkin carriage didn’t make it to the ball, being transformed into a delicious soup with the wave of the fairy godmother’s wand instead.
Oh rhubarb, beauty incarnate, particularly when chopped up, dropped into a boiling melting broth of sugary syrup, and flavoured with cardamom, nutmeg, and cloves. Why not serve it on a bed of creme fraiche or yoghurt – and of course, don’t forget to take the all important obligatory colour coded photo!
10 cardamom pods, ground in a pestle and mortar
15 cloves, roughly ground
600g rhubarb, chopped into bite-size chunks
3 tsp ground nutmeg, plus extra for serving
- Put the sugar, water, cloves and cardamom pods into a pan over a steady heat and gradually bring to the boil. Boil for one minute, then leave to cool.
- Once cool and the flavours are thoroughly infused, get rid of the cardamom pods and cloves by straining the liquid into a different pan. Bring that pan back to the boil and drop the rhubarb in with the nutmeg. Boil again for one minute, then leave to cool. Hopefully the rhubarb should still have some bite to them.
- Serve as a pudding with some creme fraiche, or as an accompaniment to your yoghurt in the morning, not forgetting to sprinkle over some more nutmeg.