The new rhubarb emerges from an age of culinary darkness

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The Independent Online
JANET OLDROYD walks down the path through the middle of her darkened hangar, planting two candles, mounted on four-foot candlesticks, in the soil on either side. "It's very restful, isn't it?" she asks, with the smile of one who knows she has just converted somebody to an unlikely cause.

In the candlelight stand row upon row of gently glowing red stalks, topped by green leaves the size of a small hand, which seem to be whispering.

Ms Oldroyd is a fourth- generation grower of "forced" rhubarb at her family's market garden on a hillside above Wakefield, West Yorkshire. Rhubarb, which until recently vied with the turnip for the title of the world's least fashionable edible plant, is in the midst of a revival. And Ms Oldroyd is at the centre.

The rhubarb revival will be celebrated this weekend in Wakefield, historical home of forced rhubarb, with the first International Rhubarb Festival, at which chefs, horticulturists and consumers will experiment with the plant.

The number of growers of forced rhubarb, which requires expensive and skilful rearing, fell from 200 some 30 years ago to just 15 last year. But the decline has been halted.

The food halls of Harvey Nichols, Harrods and Fortnum and Mason proudly display Oldroyd's forced winter rhubarb (which, as Ms Oldroyd explains, has the same relationship to ordinary rhubarb as Dom Perignon does to Babycham). A spokesman for Harvey Nichols said it is very "in" at the moment: sales have doubled in the past year.

Chefs and restaurateurs Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay use forced rhubarb in their recipes. Marcus Wareing, a chef who has worked with Ramsay and is opening his own restaurant next month, says rhubarb will be part of his menu. "I love it, and it's definitely becoming fashionable. As well as the classic rhubarb crumble, it makes beautiful chutneys and compotes, which you can serve with fois gras terrine."

As well as providing a nutritious food - rhubarb is high in calcium, potassium and fibre, and has only seven calories a stick - the revival is changing one of Britain's more unfortunate communities.

Wakefield, once part of Yorkshire's coal-mining industry, is blighted by high unemployment and the rootlessness of a new generation that has grown up to see all the region's traditional industries die. Amid the destruction, the rhubarb revival is providing an unlikely glow of pride, and an influx of money, for a true Yorkshire way of life. Some 6,000 tourists a year come to Wakefield to visit the growing hangars.

A new generation is now staying within a business that could have been consigned to the area's slagheaps. "I'm definitely staying in the family business," says Ms Oldroyd's 20-year-old son, Lindsay, a business studies graduate. "You can combine modern techniques and tradition very successfully.

"All my mates used to take the mickey," he adds, standing by his father's BMW, "but not now."