Like the first cuckoo in spring, rhubarb sightings are getting earlier and earlier. This year, I was served my first rhubarb – the most elegant of early forced Yorkshire rhubarb – at The River Café a week before Christmas. The River Café and I share the same greengrocer, and, as there is nothing we chefs hate more than a rival getting an ingredient ahead of us in the season, I berated him for not telling me about the rhubarb. He argued that since I was such a stickler for seasonality, he didn’t think I’d have wanted to serve it before Christmas.
Far from being a product of the seasons, things like forced rhubarb exist in defiance of them. Like radicchio tardivo and sea kale, they are produced by encouraging the plants to grow just at a time when nothing is supposed to grow. There is nothing very “natural” about Yorkshire rhubarb, nor anything particularly attractive about the “rhubarb triangle”, a pocket of land roughly centred on the intersection of the M1 and M62 motorways, where it is grown. The rhubarb triangle owes its location to its transport infrastructure, its adverse climate conditions and the wool industry that supplies the “shoddy”, a mix of wool waste. I find it rather splendid that such a beautiful, rarefied plant should rise out of such inauspicious conditions.
The whole business of growing rhubarb is to fool the plant into thinking spring has arrived: the rootstock is left outside in the autumn and needs a sharp frost to be convinced that it is winter – hence the miserable weather enjoyed by the hardy farmers of the rhubarb triangle. Once the frost has happened, the plants can be taken inside to the warmer shed and then duped into thinking it is safe to grow.
We had a mild autumn so I was puzzled as to why I had my rhubarb at The River Café. It emerged that there is one producer who managed to grow rhubarb despite the mild weather. He treated the plants with an acid that encourages the carbohydrate-to-sugar conversion that inspires the plant to shoot. With such trickery going on, my mind has finally been put to rest and I have forgiven my greengrocer. I am happy to have waited until now – well, until January at least – before enjoying my rhubarb.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
This fool is quite tart, bearing in mind the biscuits will add a little sugar. Others may want it sweeter. Serves six.
75g demerara sugar
The finely grated zest of an orange
½ tsp finely grated ginger root or a couple
of pinches of dry ginger (both optional)
200ml double cream
Cut off the leaves and trim the bases of the rhubarb and chop it into 3cm lengths. Place it in a saucepan with 200ml of water, the sugar, the orange zest and the ginger. Place on a gentle heat and stew gently for 10 to 12 minutes or until the rhubarb has completely collapsed. Pour the contents into a sieve placed over a bowl and then pour the pulp into another bowl, discarding the zest. Save the juice for a sorbet or a cocktail (rather good with gin). Whisk the pulp vigorously. Should you want a really smooth fool pass the pulp through a blender. Personally I prefer a little texture.
Whip the cream until it thickens and forms soft peaks and then whisk in the rhubarb purée. Taste the mixture – it should have a nice balance between the sweetness of the sugar and cream and the sour rhubarb – and add more sugar or a squeeze of lemon as necessary. Pour the mixture into individual glasses and chill for four hours.
Sponge fingers should be crisp outside with a lovely light sponge inside. Even if they look less professional, homemade will always be better than “shop”. This makes about 40 biscuits; any you have left over put in a sealed tin and make a charlotte, a tiramisu or a trifle as soon as possible.
5 egg yolks
5 egg whites
icing sugar for dusting
Preheat the oven to 150C. Whisk together the egg yolks with two-thirds of the sugar until the yolks are thick, pale and much increased in volume.
In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites, slowly adding half the remaining sugar until the mixture forms stiff peaks. Stir in the remaining sugar and then fold together the two mixtures. Sieve the flour and then sprinkle and fold it into the mixture, making sure it is thoroughly mixed, while trying not to deflate it too much.
Load the mixture into a piping bag fitted with a large plain round nozzle. Pipe out lengths of mixture the size and thickness of a finger. Dust the finger shapes with icing sugar and bake for 15 minutes. After removing the biscuits from the oven, dust them again with icing sugar and leave for five minutes before returning to the oven to crisp for a few minutes.