Post #123

Tender is the night

10th January 2004, late evening | Comments (8)

Our vegetable garden

In our garden, the vegetable garden, there sits a terracotta bell. It’s about knee high and the top lifts off so you can peer into the gloom at the soil below.

I’ve seen it there a million times, nestled amongst the lush growth in the spring and summer, matching colour with the beach hedge in the autumn, and standing alone in the winter time. Occasionally I’ve lifted the top off and looked in. Hmm, nothing there.

I’ve hit it with my football, I’ve run the wheelbarrow into it by mistake, I’ve got the hose caught on it a hundred times. I’ve even hidden a dead baby rabbit in there so the dog wouldn’t get it.

All these years, and it never occurred to me to ask what the hell it was for.

I suppose I must have wondered about it occasionally: it’s probably to stop the wind or cold tearing up a young plant; to stop slugs eating a lettuce; or keep the birds from the seeds. Or maybe it’s meant for storing dead baby rabbits away from the dog. Maybe that happens so often it necessitates a special terracotta bell and mum just never mentioned it to me. Who knows.

Well, now I know what it’s for — about ten minutes ago I worked it out and asked Mum if I was right:

So, is that what it’s for?
Of course it is! How did you not know that?
Well, you never tell me anything…

What’s it for? How did I work it out? Well, I happened to read this in the Daily Telegraph Magazine, and all became clear:

Tender is the night

By Rose Prince. Photos by Howard Sooley.

Mackerel and rhubarb

One you know what to look for, the buildings are everywhere. In this small area of Yorkshire most farms still have a long, low-built brick shed, barely high enough for a human to stand in. They could be stables — and many of them are — but that is not their original purpose. These are the forcing sheds of the Wakefield rhubarb triangle, the dark environment where bright pink winter rhubarb is grown.

The difference between this rhubarb and the khaki-red type that grows all summer is that indoor-grown rhubarb is tender and gently flavoured while outdoor — depending on the cook — can range from a stew of hellish strings to a great crumble.

December to March is the indoor rhubarb season, and now that there are so few forcing sheds in use it has become something exotic — with a scarcity value that has been recognised by chefs, full of praise for its unique taste. Forced rhubarb is now found in good restraunts more than ever; no longer simmering only under a sweet crumble but appearing in its true form as a vegetable despite its fruit character.

Rowley Leigh servers rhubarb with chilli and very fresh grilled mackerel — which is not as odd as you might think when you know that the French eat mackerel with gooseberries.

The history of forced grow rhubarb

David Westwood holding some of his rhubarb

The article continues:

Forced rhubarb, grown in pitch darkness, is a story of obsessive horticulture, inspired economic make-do and typical English eccentricity.

Most people do a double-take on hearing that vegetables can be grown in the dark. It all began when a 19th-century farmer threw a rhubarb root into a manure heap and forgot about it … a few weeks later, [he] found the rhubarb had sprouted wan, pink stalks in the warmth of the rotting heap that were infinitely nicer to eat than the tough stuff he’d grown that summer.

It is the same “where there’s a will there’s a way” tenacity that saw fires lit against kitchen garden walls, warming them so that the peaches espaliered on the other side would ripen. It inspired gardeners to grow pineapples in pits of fresh hot dung, banana trees to thrive in Northumberland and numerous species that were way, way out of their hemisphere to sprout in hothouses or under closhes. Rhubarb also belongs to that family of vegetables — asparagus, sea kale and celery — whose edible stalks are much less fibrous when grown without light.

Growing the rhubarb in the dark

Rhubarb and candles

… the rhubarb roots begin life outdoors, but it will be three years before the root stock yields the first forced rhubarb. We plant the rhubarb outside in fields for the first two seasons, then lift the dormant roots and leave them on top of the soil and wait for cold weather, Davis Westwood says.
The dormancy of the plant is broken by the cold — maybe frosty weather or cold rain. We then bring the roots into the sheds, on or around November 1, packing them in side-by-side on the floor. Within three weeks we should have a harvest

Vegetating in the absolute darkness of the heated sheds, the rhubarb searches desperately for light and in its pursuit it grows at twice [its normal] speed. For anyone frustrated by a plant’s ability to grow through a concrete path or hard tennis court, this is the explanation. The frantic energy of these plants is even audible. Standing in a quiet rhubarb shed, you can hear a popping sound as the canopy covering the crown of the leaf opens; you can hear the rhubarb grow.

Without daylight the rhubarb leaves are an anaemic green yellow, and the 2ft-long stalks smooth textured and crimson. The pickers must pull the stalks in the dark; any exposure to light will stop the growth of all the rhubarb and scupper the next harvest. By the end of March the harvest is over and the root stock, totally exhausted from its effort to find light, is composted.

We used to heat the sheds with coal and coke, but since the pit closures, we’ve had to use diesel for the heating systems and that’s very expensive. Also, rhubarb likes a lot of soot — I don’t know why, but soot in the atmosphere always helped it grow well. Now that we have this clean air policy, I use sulphur to create the same effect.

Picking the rhubarb

A Wakefiled rhubarb picker

…Westwood, who enters ahead of me to warn the pickers not to swear in my presence, calls a warning over his shoulder — mind your head — a second before my head smacks so hard into a low beam that my knees give way.

Are you all right? Fine, fine, I say. The old cliche of seeing stars is real enough but it soon becomes clear that they are not stars but the small flames of tall candles, on spiked holders rammed into the ground at approximately 10ft intervals near the line of men in the shed. It is an eerie scene. The shed is huge and it is impossible to see the back; a sea of stalks tipped with uncurling yellow leaves is just visible in the gloom. The line of men pulling the rhubarb gradually moves forward, the men chatting about the weekend with minimal use of the f-word and plenty of jokes at my expense.

So there you have it — my mum grows rhubarb in that terracotta bell. Obviously only on a small scale, but that’s what it’s for.

Apparently they used to grow it when she was a little girl — at the bottom of their garden they had a low coal shed, with two big doors that opened up and outwards, and in it my Grandad used to grow his rhubarb, in the dark.

I like that.

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Comments (8)

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  1. Zelnox:

    Apple and rhubarb pie is good. ^_^

    The orange spot in 123f.jpg, between the foliage and the grass alley, near what looks like a small greenhouse. Is that the bell?

    Posted 38 minutes after the fact
    Inspired: ↓ Dunstan
  2. Dunstan:

    You got it :o)

    Posted 42 minutes after the fact
    Inspired by: ↑ Zelnox
  3. [m]:

    Glad to see this mystery solved. :o)

    I had a similar experience about 2 years ago. There is always some old, musty smelling stuff laying in the corner of the addic and one day i rummaged through it and found this... metal thingy. It looked like some kind of a weaved fruit basket, but the bottom could folded away leaving a nearly-flat metal disc.

    I thought a while about what it could be and the best thing i could come up with was some kind of medieval hair net. Trying it on (I was in a curious mood, so sue me) it was to small to hold my head. And I don't have a large head.

    Then what could it be? It had 2 handles, so the fruit basket seemed the most logical option, but didn't explain why it could be folded in to a smaller size. Thing thing was sucking the thought juices out of my head, I needed some insight.

    So, off to my dad. I was feeling somewhat anxious when i asked the question, because i wanted to know if I was thinking in the right direction. The final anwser came, and it was surprising:

    A leddice (sp?) dryer. Yes, you read it right. It dries vegetables.

    Washed lettice goes in the basket, you grab the thing with the two handles and spin your arm like there is no tommorow. The best thing about the damn thing was that it could be folded. It was meant to be used whilst camping, so the folding properties comes in handy when you're tring to stuff your 2.1 kids and 2 year supply of clothes into one red hatchback.

    Heh. I was waaayy off.

    Posted 1 hour, 42 minutes after the fact
    Inspired: ↓ Dunstan
  4. Dunstan:

    Hey Stefan, thanks for writing such a good little story - I enjoyed reading that :op

    I liked the image of you trying it on your head!

    (I was thinking maybe it was a wicker fish net, like they used to put in rivers.)

    Posted 1 hour, 49 minutes after the fact
    Inspired by: ↑ [m]
  5. James:

    I expect the bell is actually one of those closhes referred to in "The history of forced grow rhubarb"; the french word for bell is actually cloche.

    By the way, I love the little exchanges with your family you include in these entries. It's a great personal touch that really helps me visualise your stories.

    Keep up the good work.

    Posted 12 hours, 59 minutes after the fact
  6. Jon Hicks:

    So did the Rhubarb taste a bit like decomposing Rabbit one year? Hmmm....

    What are the buildings to the left BTW? Is that the roofline we see in your banner?

    Posted 22 hours, 1 minute after the fact
    Inspired: ↓ Dunstan
  7. Dunstan:

    No, that's below and off to the left, out of site.

    If that photo was turned around 180 degrees, it'd be looking out across the field and towards the sheep, like this:

    Not a very nice picture, but it should help you to visualise things better :o)

    Posted 22 hours, 37 minutes after the fact
    Inspired by: ↑ Jon Hicks
  8. Rufus Cartwright:

    You can use a forcer for several different vegetables as well as rhubarb. There's an odd relative of the artichoke called cardoon, that is only edible if forced. The germans have a minor mania for pale asparagus, and that's also produced with a forcer. A cloche is slightly different. Its a glass bell that acts as a mini greenhouse for tender veg in spring.

    Posted 1 day, 6 hours after the fact

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