In the pink: the rise of rhubarb in Scotland
A vegetable that acts like a fruit, rhubarb has proved remarkably well suited to the growing conditions of Scotland. It’s no coincidence that it found its first UK foothold in Edinburgh.
Resilient, adaptable, versatile – in many ways Rheum rhabarbarum represents much of what Scotland does best, which is ironic given that it is in fact a vegetable originating in Asia, historically valued for its medicinal properties. The idea of using rhubarb in cooking is a relatively modern one, and in the UK at least seems to have coincided with sugar becoming more readily available. Introduced to Britain in the 18th century by Sir Alexander Dick of Prestonfield in Edinburgh – who was rewarded a Royal Society medal for his efforts – it has since become a staple of Scottish home cooking and a common feature of kitchen gardens, so easy is it to grow.
Technically a vegetable, but treated as a fruit – albeit requiring the addition of a sweetening agent – rhubarb is a good source of vitamin C and fibre and as such became crucial during the Second World War when home produce was all that could be relied upon. Rhubarb crumble, rhubarb fool, rhubarb tart are such key components of childhood meals that there is clearly some deep-rooted comfort connected with this plant. But that’s not to say it can’t break out from the nursery menu: the opulent restaurant at Prestonfield House – on the site of the plant’s first introduction to Scotland’s taste buds – is named after the plant, and serves up a dessert in honour of its tart pink charms. Simply titled Rhubarb, it includes a delicate rhubarb jam doughnut and a rhubarb and custard parfait.
In cooler climates such as that of Scotland, rhubarb’s growing season begins in spring and continues throughout the summer, but it can also be forced (that is, grown under cover to raise the temperature), which produces a late-winter crop that is a sweeter, pinker, juicier version of its naturally grown sibling.
Rhubarb is widely available from farm shops and local vegetable growers from late February onwards.