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June 07, 2010

FRUIT OF CHAMPAGNE STATURE – RHUBARB!


david ellis

WOE betide any winemaker outside the Champagne region of France who makes a drop of bubbly and labels it "Champagne."

Because the word "Champagne" is registered under the Protected Designation of Origin Food Name laws of the European Union, regulations that are strictly-enforced to protect the reputation of regional foods from competition by possibly inferior non-regional products.

We tend to blame the French for inspiring these laws in the early 1990s, and the big penalties they incur if breached. But as far back as the 1950s Europe had laws protecting the naming of cheeses from regional areas of Austria, Denmark, Italy, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. And yes, France.

And today the Protected Origin Food Name laws range to most countries of the EU, embracing an almost bizarre coterie of food and drink from British Melton Mowbray pork pies, Stilton cheese and Newcastle Brown Ale, to Italian Gorgonzola blue vein cheese, Lubecker Marzipan from Germany, Austrian Marchfeldspargel asparagus, Polish Oscypek smoked sheep's milk cheese and Kashubian garden strawberries, French Camembert de Normandie, and numerous varieties of deli meats, fruits, vegies and even breads.

And just joining the list is, of all things, rhubarb. Not any old rhubarb, but British Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb from the so-called Rhubarb Triangle, a 23 square km area bounded by Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell in West Yorkshire, and revered by devotees as akin to Rhubarb Heaven.

My good mate and fellow travel writer and broadcaster at Port Macquarie in NSW, Malcolm Andrews mentioned this when recently discussing unusual fairs and markets that could be visited in the UK.

His interest was that his dad was Chief Construction Engineer on the vast Snowy Mountains Scheme in the middle of the last century, and as a teenager Malcolm spent his week-days at a boarding school in Cooma, going home to Cabramurra (two hours drive away) at weekends.

"They were some of the most miserable years of my life," he recalls. "Particularly the lumpy porridge that began the day, stale sandwiches at lunchtime, dinners of almost inedible stews.

"And the vilest stewed rhubarb and insipid custard. It turned my stomach, and half a century later I still can't stand the sight or smell of stewed rhubarb."

But ever a dedicated scribe, Malcolm followed through on Yorkshire's Forced Rhubarb going onto the list of Protected Origin Food Name products – and even intends to one day visit the annual Rhubarb Triangle Festival and Farmer's Market held every February in Wakefield.

And he'll do the tour of the forcing sheds, the walk around the rhubarb gardens, and test his stomach to see if it's up to watching a rhubarb cooking demonstration (revealing dedication above and beyond the call of duty.)

Rhubarb actually originated in the cold, wet climes of Siberia, and when introduced to England several centuries ago flourished in the area bounded by Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield – four times the size of today's Rhubarb Triangle.

In the 1800s farmers within the Triangle began force-feeding their rhubarb crops in the field with horse manure and human waste, as well as spoil from the many surrounding woollen mills, and after two years would move the plants into heated unlit sheds.

In the dark and warmth, the vast carbohydrates stored in the rhubarb's roots transformed into glucose and the plants flourished into massive yet tender and flavoursome crops that were picked by candlelight, so as not to interfere with the peace of those plants still growing.

Every Christmas an amazing 200 tonnes a day would be sent to London's Convent Garden Markets, and more extraordinarily at one stage to Paris on special express trains.

Thankfully today's Rhubarb Triangle farmers use more modern – and certainly hygienic – means to fertilise their crops in the field, and later in their forced-growing sheds, although the tradition of candelight is still used during harvesting.

And Janet Oldroyd Hulme who conducts tours of the Rhubarb Triangle, swears that so successful are today's Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb farmers, "that in the pitch-dark hothouses, you can almost hear their rhubarb growing…"

Yeah, well…

FOOTNOTE: A "Yorkshire Rhubarb Crumble and Custard" garden won the public vote for Best Small Garden at last month's Chelsea Flower Show in London.

Have a look at www.yorkshire.com if you're inspired to visit the Rhubarb Triangle and February Festival and Markets.   

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PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] YORKSHIRE rhubarb – two years in the field before going into the forcing sheds.

[] IN the forcing sheds the stored carbohydrates produce massive plants that are mostly tender, flavoursome stalks with few leaves.

[] A resultant latticed rhubarb pie

[] SIGN proclaiming Yorkshire's reputation as the world's leader in forced rhubarb production.

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