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.