Rhubarbaria

Rhubarbaria: recipes for rhubarb
by Mary Prior
Prospect Books, Devon: 2009

I haven’t had this little book long, but once I started reading it, I knew it was my kind of cookbook – lots of details on the lore and history of rhubarb in amongst the recipes. This came as no surprise given Mary Prior’s other published works are on historical subjects.

The lengthy introductory section opens with an excursus on the word rhubarb, particularly on slang meanings. One of those slang expressions is an earthy, vegetable analogy for certain male anatomical parts. When rhubarb is used as a verb it means causing a rumpus or being nonsensical, except in Scotland where it simply means a good punch-up (which, come to think of it, is a kind of rumpus). It’s another one to add to my collection of foolish food terms which I discussed in an earlier post, In My Foolish Kitchen.

Being an historian, Mary Prior does not stint on the history of rhubarb, often including long quotations from original sources. She begins with rhubarb in Britain, but acknowledges its origins in China and its spread to the West. Rhubarb was considered as both a drug and a vegetable in many of the early herbals. Interestingly, it is still considered a “medicine” today as an ingredient in some Italian digestivi – herbal infused alcoholic drinks used to aid the digestion. It wasn’t until the 18th century that recipes for the red rhubarb stalks in sweet tarts and pies began to appear in British sources, possibly coinciding with improved plant varieties. Its taste is usually likened to the sour gooseberry.

Rhubarb’s history is reflected in the selection of recipes – in Persian cooking with meat; traditional Scottish condiments; old German, Polish and Russian traditions of rhubarb eaten as a vegetable or with other vegetables. Chapters are broken down by use – with meat, with fish, as a vegetable, in soups, as well as the more usual puddings, cakes and ices. Jams, chutneys and drinks (both alcoholic and non) are the concluding chapters. Indeed, rhubarb is a very versatile plant – just remember, don’t eat the poisonous leaf.

With the rhubarb growing quick and fast in the garden, I will be making good use of this little book now…and in future.

rhubarb_march_garden

Rhubarbaria is one of the books in Prospect Book’s The English Kitchen series. Other books in the series on similar subjects include Marmalade, Tripe, Jellies and their Moulds, Trifle, Early Vegetarian Recipes, etc. Prospect Books specialises in publishing books on food, particularly if there is a culinary history angle. They also publish the proceedings from the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, the Leeds Symposium on Food History, and the series Food and Drink in Archaeology (a Nottingham postgraduate seminar series). For those interested in food and culinary history, Prospect Books website also contains a handy glossary of historical culinary terms and a list of other historical food web-sites.
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13 comments

  1. I come from a long line of rhubarb growers/cooks/lovers. There was always rhubarb in both my grandparents’ vegie gardens and my parents’. Mum came up with the inspired combination of adding sliced ripe banana at the end of the cooking time, a bizarre but delicious combo. When I was a teenager Dad made rhubarb wine. The bottles that didn’t explode we’re delicious. Slightly frizzante, dry, a bit like champagne only fruitier, my first experience of feeling slightly drunk!

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    • Ditto (grandmothers and gardens, that is). Do you have the recipe for rhubarb wine? My father-in-law made a wonderful elderflower champagne, but I think I would like this better!

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    • Had to run downstairs to the kitchen and consult Rhubarbaria – there are 2 recipes for rhubarb wine, one old Scottish one that used isinglass which seems to be a bladder of fish (yuck!), but the other just used yeast. I may try it, but use a proper champagne yeast rather than the bog-standard dried variety. Need to do more research!

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      • I suspect Dad may have used Mrs Beeton’s recipe, as resources were pretty thin on the ground in our house, I’m talking the late 1960s. There is a slim chance he wrote it in a notebook I have, I’ll check it out in a couple of hours, after dinner. Fingers crossed. Oh as I write there are vague memories returning. I think he may have used bakers yeast, and maybe apples too. I do remember a brown glass Demi John’s with glass tubes and a water filled airlock. Anyway I’ll hunt out the book a little later…

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      • No joy with the recipe I’m afraid and after consulting Mrs Beeton I’d be surprised if he did follow her recipe. She also includes isinglass. I’ll ask my brother if he has any memories of Dad’s rhubarb wine enterprise. I hope if you do decide to go ahead and make rhubarb wine that you keep us posted as you proceed. 😃

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    • The recipes are interesting – many of them historical – but I’m not sure I would say “inspiring”. Some of them, however, are unusual and may spark your imagination to be more creative than the actual recipes listed. I think I’m going to try making rhubarb wine – watch this space!

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  2. Rhubarb, rhubarb rhubarb. Great review thanks! I also come from a long line of rhubarb lovers. I did a paper on rhubarb years ago at cooking school and this has brought it all back. I had to invent a recipe using rhubarb in a different way so I put it in a savoury sweet and sour pork dish. I need to find this book and am looking forward to your rhubarb wine experiment. 🙂

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    • Oh well, have just been looking into the wine business and will need a few specialist bits of equipment first. Lots of internet searching first to find the best deals on demijohns, bungs and airlocks! But, I am determined and the clock is ticking since I’ve been told the rhubarb has to be picked before June for the best results! Your savoury sweet and sour pork sounds delicious. Have you posted this? If not, please do.

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