Until the early 19th century rhubarb was only grown outdoors. The thick, green acidic stems were harvested from their hardy crowns from late spring through till early autumn. Following a happy accident in 1817 a new process of indoor growing was discovered - read the history of how this happened on the following page.
on the following page.
Forcing is the process whereby rhubarb crowns are taken indoors, deprived of food and light which then kick-starts (forces) the crowns to throw out stalks.
The 2-3 year old rhubarb roots are first lifted from the fields only after they have been exposed to frost before planting inside huge, dark sheds. Once inside the rhubarb stalks grow so quickly it is possible, if it is quiet in the shed, to hear the ‘popping’ sound as the stalks are pushed out from the bud.
The resulting rhubarb stalks are slender, sweeter and infinitely more tender than the robust outdoor grown. They range in colour from delicate blush pink to a deep crimson red and are only available between January
and March with perhaps a few weeks either side in a good season.
The rhubarb must be harvested by hand, a time consuming process as each stem must be removed intact from the root. The stick is ready to be picked when it is an arms length long, then the picker inserts a finger between the stick and bud at the base, gently pushing whilst twisting and pulling. Any remnant of stalk left in the bud could rot and potentially cause botrytis, a fungus which can quickly spread and affect the whole shed - a disaster for any rhubarb grower.
Questions have been asked by visitors to the sheds if it is in fact cruel to deprive the rhubarb plants of light and food. I have been assured by rhubarb grower Janet Oldroyd-Hulme that this is not so, she tells me, she has never heard the plants scream.