Our claim to ownership of rhubarb in Britain goes back just a few hundred years. But the history in the world goes back millennia starting in Siberia where it was originally cultivated with the first mention around 2700 BC. It was the dried root of Chinese rhubarb which was highly prized as a medicine and its purgative qualities and for the treatment of many intestinal ailments, liver and gut problems.
Marco Polo may have brought the root to Europe in the 13th century but little is known of it in Britain until the 14th where it is alleged it carried promises of purifying blood and making young wenches look fair captured the imagination.
At this time, the price of rhubarb root commanded even more than opium, in France 10 times the price of cinnamon, and four of saffron, which at the time was the most expensive spice. It was a much prized drug for apothecaries and medics in their treatment of most ailments and anyone who could unlock the key to the cultivation of the high quality Chinese root closer to home were set for fame and fortune. Throughout the 17th and 18th century this quest occupied British botanists, apothecaries, scientists and explorers. There were many failures but in 1777, Hayward, an apothecary in Banbury, Oxfordshire raised seed sent from Russia and produced roots of an outstanding quality. So successful was the cultivation it spread throughout neighbouring counties and into Yorkshire and still exists in Banbury today.
Likewise, Scotsman James Mounsey had been the doctor to tsar Peter III but following his assassination fled for his life back to Lockerbie in Dumfriesshire. He brought rhubarb seeds with him and from these he also successfully grew fields of high quality rhubarb.
It should be noted that the stalk and leaves were of no value and certainly not for any culinary merit. One paragraph, however, in a somewhat lengthy text between Englishman Peter Collinson and John Bantram in, amongst other informations goes on to inform Collinson that the Siberian rhubarb along with Rhapontic (another type of rhubarb) make excellent tarts.
“All you have to do is to take the stalks from the root, and from the leaves; peel off the rind and cut them in two or three pieces, and put them in crust with sugar and a little cinnamon; then bake the pie, or tart: eats best cold. It is much admired here , and has none of the effects the roots have. It eats most like gooseberry pie.”
Hannah Glasse is attributed with what is believed to be one of the first recipe in print in 1760, 13 years after her other famous ‘first’ - the recipe for Yorkshire Pudding. Her recipe in the Compleat Confectioner is not dissimilar to that of Bantram and tells of taking the stalks of English rhubarb, cutting to the size of gooseberries, sweetening and making as you would a gooseberry tart.
Britain embraced the culinary delights of rhubarb well before the rest of Europe with the falling price of sugar certainly a contributing factor and soon pies, puddings,
jams, jellies and wines made their way onto the British table.