Spring is coming slowly to Maine this year. It was 19 degrees yesterday morning and the ground was frozen solid. There hasn't been much mud yet but the Rhubarb is starting to appear in the local produce section of my local Hannaford so spring must be somewhere around the corner!
Rhubarb was known by the Romans as a food eaten by the people who inhabited their northern borders-they labeled these people as "barbarians" and the name stuck. Like the Rutabaga, Rheum x hybridum or Russian Rhubarb, is an edible plant that was probably introduced to Scotland by the Vikings. The various varieties of rhubarb plant known today probably all originated along the Asian Steppes, and the Russian Rhubarb that is popular for making pies grew wild along the banks of the River Volga at the time when the Vikings were using it as a trade route. It is first written down as being brought to England from the Volga region in 1573. It was first planted in Italy in 1608 and then in other parts of Europe about 20 to 30 years later. By 1778, Europeans were using rhubarb as a filling for tarts and pies, its popularity rising as sugar prices had descended.
The Chinese species of Rhubarb were grown in botanical gardens in Europe all through the Renaissance. The expense of transportion across Asia caused Rhubarb to be highly expensive in medieval Europe, where at one time it cost more per pound than opium. The merchant explorer, Marco Polo, was therefore interested in, and noted it when he found, an inexpensive source of the plant during his trip to China. Up until the 17th century, Rhubarb was considered a medicinal plant that was prescribed for everything from hangnails to cholera. This reputation remains to this day due to its Vitamin C and Vitamin K content. An old Maine recipe from 1790, for example, calls for rhubarb powder for the treatment of piles!
In America, Rhubarb started out as a plant grown in the herb gardens of the immigrants called the Scotch Irish, and would only become somewhat of a commercial crop later. Sometime between 1790 and 1800, rhubarb spread to the rest of the country from Maine and it became a popular crop. By 1822, rhubarb was available in produce markets throughout New England.
A later development in Rhubarb cultivation, the process of forcing it by growing it in the dark or by pale candlelight, created a thriving industry in England during the late nineteenth century. In modern times, most of the rhubarb in England comes from the northern borderlands of England. An area called The Rhubarb Triangle, consisting of Wakefield, Leeds and Bradford, is located in the northern county of Yorkshire. A European Union program to register and protect cultural foods from around Europe has recently recognized Rhubarb as a unique regional food of Yorkshire.
Rhubarb Crisp is a tasty 19th century recipe that combines Rhubarb with another Scotch Irish staple-Oats- for a special springtime treat.
• 3 cups diced rhubarb stalks
• 1 cup white sugar
• 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
• 1 cup packed light brown sugar
• 1 cup rolled oats
• 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
• 2 sticks butter
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Butter a 9x13 inch baking dish.
2. In a large mixing bowl combine rhubarb, white sugar, and 3 tablespoons flour. Stir well and spread evenly into baking dish. Set aside.
3. In a large mixing bowl combine brown sugar, oats, and 1 1/2 cups flour. Stir well then cut in butter until mixture is crumbly. Sprinkle mixture over rhubarb layer.
4. Bake in preheated oven for 40 minutes. Serve hot or cold.