However, just to muddy the waters a little further, if you follow the European Union classification, rhubarb is indeed a fruit…but only when it’s used to make jam. Glad we’ve cleared that up.
I’m going to admit to some personal bias here. I love rhubarb. Along with wild autumn blackberries, this sour and scented ‘fruit’ is one of my absolute favourites. Rhubarb, along with swallow, is no better sign that the cold days of winter are going and the summer is coming over the horizon. Indeed, the very colours of early rhubarb, the shades of subtle pinks and oranges, are the very colours of a May sunrise over the Fens.
Rhubarb has an interesting history. Originating in China, rhubarb takes it name, via a few etymological twists and turns, from the Greek meaning “stuff the Barbarians eat” - ‘rhu-for-barbs’.
By the nineteenth century, rhubarb had found its way into the hurly-burly of the Opium Wars between Britain and China, with China threatening to kill every man, woman and child by constipation resulting from a rhubarb embargo. Shortly after, the Chinese realised the error of their plan and went for a tea embargo instead.
By the late nineteenth century, Yorkshire’s ‘rhubarb triangle’ was producing 90 per cent of the world’s early forced rhubarb, ‘forcing’ the young rhubarb in the dark in forcing sheds. This gives rhubarb is one other claim to fame: it is the only British fruit you can actually hear growing.
This classic Rhubarb Fool is a quintessentially British pudding. I use just cream, though some variations use custard as well. A practice I’m yet to be convinced of as ‘rhubarb and custard’ is another great dish all on its own. You don’t need to place anything alcoholic in the base, but that little extra punch makes any pudding a bit more adult. Champagne, sparkling elderflower, ginger or whisky liquors are all good, but I find vodka adds a bit of oomph.