Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Musings From My Stoop

I picked up some rhubarb on the weekend at the Qualicum Beach Farmer's Market...remember the old variety that used to grow out of compost piles in the barnyard? The kind that was stringy and tough and oh, so tasty? These stalks looked as if they might taste like that.

That was the old rhubarb, the one that grows huge and seemingly forever. That kind was the one my ex mother-in-law used to stew, for hours, it seemed, and still there would be lumps of rhubarb that didn't break down with the long cooking period. Those lumps brought a burst of tart, earthy flavour to the taste buds, reminding you of just how sour this plant is, without the sugar.

But rhubarb has been refined. When I try to stew it, it turns into a pink, mushy concoction...even pies, good as they are, bear no resemblance to the rhubarb pies of old. Rhubarb is advertised in the seed catalogues now as tender...and one even commented on the sweetness of the stalks! Sacrilege!

I remember taking a cup of some sugar, or honey, if we had it, outside and picking one of those ruby-green, heavy rhubarb stalks, dipping it into the sweetener, and sucking the juice, screwing up my face at the absolute sour, unforgettable taste. It tasted of the earth. It was such a rite of Spring.

Much the same, I suppose, for all those kids out there who love the chemically-induced sour candy that floods the market. I read somewhere (for the life of me, I can't remember where!) that children's taste buds are attracted to sour-sweet foods. As a child, I guess rhubarb filled that area of taste experience for me.

And the candy mongers found a market...

As the thoughts flowed through my mind this morning, sitting on my stoop, I thought about the strength of that old variety. There are tales told of rhubarb living in a yard somewhere for fifty years and more, of varieties that are taller than a man. Can you imagine how long you'd have to stew a stalk of that plant?!?

Other than stewing or making pies, though, I've used it in muffins and quick breads, in sauces and jams, and as a condiment for pork roast. I found the site Rosy Rhubarb Festival great for adding a few more ideas for the use of this...vegetable? fruit? It's been called both.

What would Mushroom Rhubarb Soup taste like? The Rhubarb Compendium has such a recipe, and I'm really tempted to try it. It also has recipes for Rhubarb Apple Meringue and Rhubarb and Foie Gras. Mmmm. Everything I ever needed to know about Rhubarb is on this amazing site.

So, that old Rhubarb, I was thinking, gave much to the human race, over the centuries, starting with ancient China, where it grows wild. It's got great medicinal exercises a digestive action (I can well imagine!) and is classed as a hepatic stimulant. Rhubarb has staying power, it's strong, and makes no bones about how it looks or tastes or for that matter, what it requires...manure is its food of choice. We've hybridized and changed it over the years, making it more popular, less stringy, less astringent...but it really didn't require any change.

At least, if that old plant that used to grow with such gusto right behind the barn was any indication.

And the Rhubarb I bought at the Market? It had long, straight stalks, thick and red. It was a cross between the tough Rhubarb of my youth and the "new" varieties available today. It didn't need a long cooking period; I took it off the heat as soon as I noticed the fruit chunks disappearing. The amount of sugar used was certainly didn't need as much sweetening as I remember. The taste was not as strong as I recall, but Graham is enjoying it.

Memory is golden.

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