Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb: how a staple of school dinners has finally reached haute cuisine's top table

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Vegetable soup with cheese and rhubarb croute; champagne and rhubarb sorbet; pan-fried duck breast with honey and rhubarb glaze; parsnip and rhubarb mash; and rhubarb timbale, topped off with gourmet crumble.

Vegetable soup with cheese and rhubarb croute; champagne and rhubarb sorbet; pan-fried duck breast with honey and rhubarb glaze; parsnip and rhubarb mash; and rhubarb timbale, topped off with gourmet crumble.

It is a far cry from the days when the only encounter with the pink stalks came when they were floating in a pool of lumpy school custard.

This week the Wakefield Rhubarb Festival, an emerging feature on the regional cultural calendar, will celebrate the changing tastes and culinary experimentalism which have helped transform the reputation of rhubarb.

The festival - which culminates in the National Gourmet Winter Rhubarb Day - began seven years ago as an attempt to stem the apparently terminal decline of the "Rhubarb Triangle" between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield that once sustained 190 growers. But that was before the acclaim began.

Rick Stein, who swears by rhubarb sauce with beef, recently pronounced rhubarb crumble "the best pudding in the world". Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall began promoting his rhubarb vodka, and the Michelin-starred Shaun Hill, from the Merchant House in Ludlow, Shropshire, insisted on Yorkshire produce for his speciality rhubarb tart with ginger custard. Chefs are suddenly promoting rhubarb as the vegetable that it is, with a sharpness of flavour that sits well with oily fish and meat.

All the attention has sent a frisson of excitement through the rhubarb sheds, visible from the M1 near Leeds, where the sweeter, more delicately flavoured rhubarb varieties are "forced" in constant 13C temperatures by the light of candles and a couple of 40-watt bulbs.

E Oldroyd & Sons, one of the largest rhubarb businesses and one of Stein's "Food Heroes", can barely meet the new demand, after doubling its output of forced rhubarb to 200 tons a year and quadrupling sales of the outdoor type to 600 tons in just two years.

"Five years ago I would have said there's no light at the end of the tunnel," said Janet Oldroyd-Hulme. "You might say we were like a pop star that had been over-exposed. But now we seem to be back in fashion."

Until the 1960s, the railways ran a "Rhubarb Special" that took crates of the produce from Yorkshire to Covent Garden, and you could look out from a bridge in Leeds and see seven miles of rhubarb in every direction.

The "Triangle" thrived on a sulphurous soil peculiarly suited to a Siberian plant originally brought to Britain in the late 18th century. Its growth was symbiotic with other industries in the area. Waste combings from the wool industry, known as "shoddy", provided nitrogen-enriched fertiliser. Coal from local pits heated the forcing sheds. Then the mines and factories started closing and the growers were dealt an almost mortal blow by air-freighted tropical fruit. Just 10 rhubarb growers have managed to hold on. Among them are the Oldroyds, a formidable rhubarb family whose blood must run pink. Mrs Oldroyd-Hulme's father was awarded the Northern Horticultural Society's highest award in 1995 "for services to rhubarb". Her son, Lindsay, wrote a dissertation on rhubarb as part of his BSc in soil management at Leeds University.

"My father survived by growing other crops, which supported his love for rhubarb," said Mrs Oldroyd-Hulme, gazing across vast forcing sheds that include varieties like Queen Victorias, Timperley Earlies and Stockbridge Arrows. The very best of these will be selected for the company's Crimson Crown grade and dispatched to some of the country's top restaurants.

The medicinal value of the crops is just as important as their culinary qualities, and an insurance policy against the vagaries of haute cuisine, according to Mrs Oldroyd-Hulme.

"They're finding more and more medical uses for it," she said. "It has a massive amount of calcium but it also has an ability to lower your cholesterol levels. Oxalic acid found in much of the leaf helps detoxify your system."

She also believes rhubarb growers can draw on the grim experience of the past 20 years to maintain its culinary appeal. "The thing I've also noticed is that its sharp taste is not to children's taste. I think that's where we went wrong by serving up all those horrible green varieties during the war. We lost generations of customers. I think we can learn from that."

FROM CHINA TO CHELSEA, A TASTY DELICACY WITH HEALING POWERS

Rhubarb originates from the banks of the Volga. It was transported down the Old Silk Road to China, where its use in medicine was recorded in 2700BC. Marco Polo brought it to Europe, and it arrived in Britain in the 16th century.

It was used in Britain to treat stomach, colon and liver illnesses, but is now promoted as a way to lower cholesterol. Its ability to raise calcium levels makes it a good treatment for brittle-bone disease.

The tastiness of "forced" indoor rhubarb is said to have been discovered by a Chelsea gardener in the early 19th century, who accidentally left a chimney pot over rhubarb. Rhubarb is a vegetable, not a fruit. It is the plant name for 70 species of rheum. It is often used in puddings, served with ginger or custard, but can be used asan alternative to apple sauce, and is good with oily fish. Its leaves are poisonous. Janet Oldroyd-Hulme's tip: Rhubarb is wonderful when simmered in orange juice.

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