And we would like you to forget the custard, too

Rhubarb is now regarded as a sophisticated and versatile addition to any menu, says Annie Bell

Rumours have been circulating about the new-found fashionability of rhubarb. There is the faintest whiff of hype mixed up with its steamy juices, so I straight away rang Anthony Worrall-Thompson who admitted to using it "quite a bit more" than he used to. Marco Pierre White seems in some danger of becoming patron saint, but he denied using it more than usual, saying that he has been loyal to it since childhood.

Rhubarb does enjoy a certain exclusivity at this time of year for being the only fruit to brave the weather. Well, vegetable actually; we classify it as a fruit because we eat it with sugar.

For the country-dweller in 1938, its significance should not be underrated. Della Lutes describes the first rhubarb of the season as being "to the digestive tract of winter-logged inner man what a good hot bath with plenty of healing soap is to the outer after a bout with plough and harrow".

Forced rhubarb has delicate, juicy, pink-leaf stalks, with just a tender wisp of outer skin, and it melts to a pure almost immediately when it is cooked.

If you want the rhubarb pieces to stay intact, then it is best to cook them in the oven as outlined below. For sauces and pures, cook the rhubarb with a minimal amount of water in a covered saucepan until it collapses.

Rhubarb's classic tartness makes it game for sorrel and gooseberry-style sauces, with mackerel or salmon. Mr Worrall-Thompson uses it in a chutney with almonds and apple-pie spices to go with cold meats. Although the mature leaves are poisonous, Mr White uses the young leaves to wrap around quail.

Meanwhile, on the sweet front, an old-fashioned cobbler with scones baked on top of rhubarb in syrup is quite heavenly, as is a rich saffron and honey custard baked on a base of fruit.

The prize for adoration has to go to Auberge de L'Ill, Illhaeusern, where Robin Weir and Caroline Liddell, authors of Ices (Hodder and Stoughton, £18.99), recall being served eight miniature rhubarb desserts on a plate: as well as rhubarb ice-cream and sorbet, it also arrived in a flan, a mousse, with ginger in a millefeuille, crystallised, and poached with a seal of white chocolate.

I have been avoiding mentioning that childhood nightmare of thin sticks of rhubarb in a pink syrup, with thick yellow custard sinking into it like the oil globules on a lava lamp. But compare yesteryear and today and there is no doubt that rhubarb has become a thoroughly modern vegetable.

Rhubarb Cobbler

with Clotted Cream

Ingredients: 8oz (225g) plain flour, sieved

1 heaped tsp baking powder, sieved

2oz (55g) caster sugar

3oz (85g) unsalted butter

1 egg (size 1), beaten

11/2lb (680g) forced rhubarb, trimmed weight

8oz (225g) strawberry jam

1 level tsp caster sugar mixed with one level tsp freshly ground cinnamon

To serve: clotted cream

Preparation: Place flour, baking powder and sugar in the bowl of a food processor, add butter and reduce to crumbs. Add egg and bring the dough together. Wrap in clingfilm and rest in the fridge while the rhubarb is cooking. Preheat oven to 180C/330F/gas 4. Cut rhubarb into 1-inch lengths, place in a shallow baking or gratin dish and mix in the jam. Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes, stirring halfway through.

On a lightly floured surface roll the dough 1/2-3/4 inches thick and cut out scones using a 2-inch cutter; roll dough twice only. Arrange these between the rhubarb so they are partially sunk into the juices. Scatter a pinch of cinnamon sugar over each scone and return to oven for 20 minutes until scones are lightly golden. Serve hot with the clotted cream.

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