Monday, 20 March 2017

The Fair Weather Gardener - Grandfather's Rhubarb

Greetings to all you fair weather gardeners, I've been one of these for ages.

It's probably in my blood somewhere, although my Grandfather was a completely serious, all-weather gardener. As well as mowing lawns, trimming many yards of beech and lavender hedges, cultivating herbs and flowers for cutting and brewing serious quantities of compost in huge pits, he grew all his own fruit - apples, pears, raspberries, strawberries, you name it. He even had two small fig trees for a while, though I don't think they did very well in the chalky soil of West Sussex. He had taken those out by the time I was in my teens.
Pulled rhubarb - photo by Dieter Weber  

One thing he was certainly expert at was rhubarb - not a fruit in cultivation but cooked as fruit - he had a huge rhubarb bed and would straw it down in winter, then carefully begin to pull the edible stems from the ground early in the year. He'd trim the wrinkled, yellow leaves off with his special small, curved rhubarb knife, which was reserved for the purpose and put those into compost pits before taking the vivid pink stems indoors. Those early, sweet pink stems were beautifully cooked by my Granny.

When there was a surplus of pink stems for immediate needs, the bottling began, an exciting, mysterious process involving dangerously boiling syrup, occasionally exploding Kilner jars and many hours in the Aga. The aroma was heady and I've never eaten rhubarb like it, sweetly, pinkly juicy and most heavenly with Birds' Custard.

By the end of summer the huge leathery rhubarb leaves were our playthings, used for parasols or for roofing impromptu camps, while the solid, green-streaked stems would be hefty swords or lances, being whacked around the head with one was a serious business. We were allowed to play with them provided we didn't pull them off the plants ourselves, because they were considered too tough to be worth eating by that time of year. Grandfather still had to cut them himself, with his rhubarb knife, so as to not harm the crown. We were warned not to eat the leaves, they were poisonous.

My only attempt to grow rhubarb was singularly unsuccessful. The crowns would produce a few scrawny stems which were as tough as - well not boots, plimsolls maybe - and so acidic that even twice as much sugar as you would think possible barely rendered them edible. After indigestion became almost chronic I abandoned the rhubarb. The fact that at the time I was living nearly in the rhubarb triangle wasn't enough, those plants clearly needed all the pampering, manure and home-brewed compost that Grandfather had lavished on his. I wasn't up to the challenge.

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