Although it came here originally from Russia, rhubarb is, for me, an extremely English fruit, arriving at a very important time in the calendar – early spring, when there's absolutely no other interesting fruit in season.
It really is a curious, wonderfully different fruit – no other comes to us as an elongated stalk. Watching it grow, almost secretly, in the garden under its umbrella of wide, green leaves is fascinating.
As early as March, we can buy the tender, pink stalks of forced rhubarb, which have a delicate, youthful flavour. Then, in May, we begin to see that the rhubarb is a deeper, rosier red. Later on, in June and July, it will be dark crimson, more acid and less sweet, so a little more sugar is needed at this time. Use it in crumble, in pies, or in Old-fashioned Rhubarb Trifle.
When it comes to preparing and cooking rhubarb, first trim off the leaves and cut the stalks into 1 inch (2.5 cm) chunks. I never, ever simmer or boil rhubarb because it tends to mash up, so to keep the pieces intact, it's best to bake it in the oven using 3 oz (75 g) of sugar to each 1 lb 8 oz (700 g) of fruit, pre-heating the oven to gas mark 4, 350°F (180°C). Place it in a shallow dish and give it 30-40 minutes, uncovered.
This amount will serve four people.
A wonderfully easy way to serve rhubarb, this lovely compote totally avoids that common problem with rhubarb - mush! - as it cooks slowly in the oven without water to keep its texture and shape but add loads of flavour.
Old-fashioned because when I was a child – a very long time ago – I used to love jelly trifles, and my mother would always make one for my birthday. This is a much more adult version...
Although my own rhubarb crop is only about 3 inches high at present, there is plenty of the early forced rhubarb in the shops and it's never better than in this most English of puddings. On Sundays we serve it with proper custard, an extra luxurious
Not quite so famous as mackerel with gooseberries but just as good – the acidic fruit counteracts the richness of the fish perfectly.
There were a few sceptics when, in my muffin madness, I suggested we try rhubarb. But if you chop it small it does what other fruits do, and releases its juicy fragrance, which permeates all through.
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