Scary stories from a lovely place
Rhubarb is weird. The stalks are where the goodness is, but apparently the leaves will kill you. It grows like mad in the cold of the northern hemisphere. It’s kind of red, but mostly green. It tastes amazing and it’s hard not to cook it right. It feels dignified, regal even to eat it regularly. It’s tart and acidic, but delicious.
I had never eaten this gloriously strange stuff until I lived in South Africa. There I found it for sale in an overpriced greengrocer’s and decided to give it a go. I was enchanted by the inherent paradoxes of rhubarb. It tasted incredible – that much I was sure of. But I couldn’t really explain why.
Then I fell in love with Stephen, who was veritably raised on the stuff. He spoke of rhubarb crumble and rhubarb pie and rhubarb sauce and rhubarb compote like they were staples. I was mystified. I kept cooking it and consuming it and trying it out in different forms. Crumble. Muffins (mmm with orange peel). Stewed and served with ice cream. Or custard. Or on top of pancakes. The possibilities seemed endless.
Then we got married and I tried my hand at growing food in the garden for us to eat. Rhubarb was on the top of the list. It tried to grow. But as soon as a stalk appeared I would cut that sucker off and chuck it in a saucepan with a bunch of the store bought stuff. I tried to be patient. The stalks got bigger. But there was never more than one or two. I was disappointed and started to doubt the quality of rhubarb.
We visited Stephen’s parents in another part of the country and I was amazed by their rhubarb plantation. It was growing under the washing line, uncut, unmolested, uninterrupted. There were stalks and leaves galore. Stephen’s mum gave me a bag full to take home. But the stalks were never wider than my middle finger, which is the same as the ones I could buy at the greengrocer. Stephen spoke wistfully of rhubarb the size of my wrist growing in his childhood garden. In Ireland. I had to see it.
So I came to Ireland a few weeks ago, doubting the presence of this gigantic, arm sized rhubarb. I had labelled my husband a liar, or at least prone to hyperbole. I should not have doubted him. In an unassuming patch of earth in my in-law’s backyard there is rhubarb growing that looks like it would feed a giant. The leaves are as big as my armspan. Some of the stalks are as thick as my children’s arms. It’s bewildering.
But do you know what’s even crazier? My parents in law are just letting this rhubarb languish in its enormity. It’s sitting there uncut, unmolested, uninterrupted. They’re not cooking it everyday and consuming it in a variety of forms. It’s wrong, criminal, sinful even! So I had to rectify the situation. I took a butter knife to the plant and cut off the glorious stalks.
I stewed (and forgot about the saucepan bubbling away, but it still turned out okay). I added sugar and lemon rind. I baked muffins (they failed – dodgy British flour). I baked crumble.
It was glorious. But the rhubarb plant looks barely touched by my cooking hands. There will be more rhubarb snapped off, cut up and cooked in the coming weeks – that you can count on.