West Yorkshire has been the home of the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’ since the late 19th century. Despite the apparent lack of paranormal activity and notorious disappearances, the facts about this little known phenomenon are still often vague and shrouded in mystery. So in order to get to the bottom of the peculiar goings on in deepest Wakefield at this time of year we embarked on a mini rhubarb adventure.
It started with a phone call a week ahead to check availability of the tour, as advised on the website. I was told that they were very busy but we could indeed be squeezed in on Saturday 13th February at 10.30am. The booking was provisionally made and I posted a cheque at the soonest opportunity to confirm, we would then be emailed our tickets and directions to the location.
We were off to discover the secret world of the Rhubarb Triangle and to meet the ‘High Priestess of Rhubarb’!
The Rhubarb Triangle owes its name to the areas history of rhubarb growing, more specifically to its position at the epicentre of "forced" rhubarb production. The first misnomer that needs to be cleared up is its location. The Rhubarb Triangle is often described as being the triangular area between the cities of Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford (the green triangle on the map). Other sources give the points of the triangle as Leeds, Morley and Wakefield (the blue triangle on the map). However both of these claims are rhubarb (pardon the obvious pun) as the largest area of rhubarb cultivation actually falls outside both of these triangles. It more accurately covers the triangular 9-square-mile area of land formed between Morley, Wakefield and Rothwell (the red triangle on the map).
In fact much of the rhubarb these days is grown around the village of Carlton and this is where we were heading.
On arrival at Oldroyd's Farm we were met by Janet Oldroyd Hulme (AKA the ‘High Priestess of Rhubarb’). The tour started with Tea / Coffee and Biscuits and then we were taken back in time to 2700BC to trace rhubarb’s ancient history. Rhubarb (actually a vegetable, not a fruit) is originally native of Siberia and since early times has been highly prized for its medicinal properties. In fact, back to the modern day and only this week it was announced that this super food has now been linked with the prevention and possible treatment of cancer.
Although not native to the UK Rhubarb was found to flourish in Yorkshire’s cold, damp soils.
The forcing process was discovered by chance in the early 19th Century, but it wasn't until 1877 that Yorkshire became the first place in the world to build special sheds to grow it in. In its heyday there were more than two hundred growers in the Rhubarb Triangle and it produced 90% of the world's winter rhubarb. It was grown, picked and whisked away to London via the rail network on the "Rhubarb Express", to be sold at Covent Garden and Spitalfields markets and on into Europe. I wondered if the trains left from Platform nine and three quarters but didn't dare to ask.
After World War II the industry sadly went into decline and producers went bankrupt or were forced to sell up as other, more exotic fruit became widely available and more popular. Now there are just a handful of growers left in the area; 12 to be precise. Leading the renaissance is the Oldroyd family, now into its fifth generation of dedicated rhubarb growers. Janet leaves you with no doubt as to her passion for this crimson stalk.
We were then introduced to the dark art of rhubarb forcing! Each winter rhubarb crowns (established root systems) are transferred indoors into dark, heated nursery sheds to be "forced". Anything referred to as being "forced" would generally have bad connotations, particularly in relation to food. In the case of rhubarb though, it describes the process of growing the plants at an accelerated rate in warm, dimly lit conditions a process that actually results in a superior product. The forced stalks are tender, sweet, and a distinctive bright pink in colour. Known as "Champagne Rhubarb", it is a seasonal delicacy and can fetch much higher prices than its more fibrous and lip-puckeringly sour outdoor equivalent that has given rhubarb such a bad reputation.
Once inside the secret word of the low, dark forcing sheds the ambiance is eerie, almost other worldly. With the giant heaters turned off, in the silence you can actually hear the rhubarb growing; it is a distinctive "pop" as the buds of new stalks burst open. The grotto-like shed runs as far as the eye can see, and the rhubarb emerges in the flickering candlelight. Janet describes it as "almost like a religious experience" and without doubt it is strangely atmospheric, even magical.
The Yorkshire rhubarb growers are currently waiting on a decision from Brussels on an application for Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status for their crop, to allow them to officially name their product "traditionally grown Yorkshire rhubarb" and prevent cheap imitations from impostors, such as the Dutch. The decision is due in the next few days and hopefully forced Yorkshire rhubarb will then join the elite list of protected regional foods and put the Rhubarb Triangle firmly on the map.
E.Oldroyd & Sons Ltd
Carlton Village, LS26 0ST
Tours run from January to March.
Wakefield Food, Drink and Rhubarb Festival runs from 26th to 27th February 2010.