In a corner of my garden I have a rhubarb patch, not any ordinary rhubarb but champagne rhubarb and rhubarb with a history.
When I was a little girl we visited my Uncle John and Aunt Mamie in Ashbourne numerous times every week . They were my mothers unmarried brother and sister and were like an extra set of parents to us. I loved their garden and like many of their generation they gardened from necessity as well as for the love of it. My Uncle tended mostly to fruit and vegetables and my aunt to the roses and flower beds. They had plum and pear trees and numerous apple varieties.He had gooseberries, loganberries, blackcurrants and raspberries and many a summer I was pressed into service picking fruit so my aunt could make jams and chutneys. At the very top of the garden in a very carefully tended plot the rhubarb grew. Uncle John would spend hours up there taking care of it, watering it in dry weather and hauling huge wheelbarrows of manure home from the nearby cattle mart where he worked.” Its a wet thing rhubarb “ he would pronounce and then he would extol the virtues of feeding it with manure. He would start in October by covering the rhubarb stools with manure and sometimes a little straw. Over winter he would soak manure in big vats of water placed carefully beside the rhubarb and in Spring he would slosh the muddy smelly water around the base of the rhubarb patch. Occasionally he would force some early rhubarb for Easter under a large bucket but mostly he would let nature take its course and wait for it to grow into long strong stems the most gorgeous shade of red. I always enjoyed pulling it as it felt very satisfying to feel it pull with a sucking sound from the base of the plant. He explained how to pull it low down to ensure it didn’t break off and would also point out that this kept the plant producing more stems of the delicious vegetable. Rhubarb is often wrongly considered a fruit as it is mainly used as a dessert or in jams but technically its a vegetable ( yes I know botany is weird). He would tell me that the parent or grandparent of his rhubarb had come from the Champagne region of France as a gift for the Bishop of Dublin.It had been planted and flourished in the garden of the Bishops Palace in Drumcondra in the 1940’s. Uncle John’s cousins lived in Coldwinter in Finglas which back in those days was in the country. This part of the rhubarbs history is somewhat hazy as I seem to remember that one of the family worked in Drumcondra and acquired a few stools of the prized rhubarb which was then passed on to Uncle John. He of course set about making a rhubarb patch to be proud of and my memory of it is of this huge area with about 30 large clumps of rhubarb growing away happily in the top corner of a field. We had rhubarb jam, rhubarb tarts and rhubarb crumble, all mouthwateringly delicous as both my aunt and mother were wonderful cooks. My aunt would sell it at the gate with a handmade sign “Rhubarb for sale” and along with fresh eggs they often did quite well. In later years the local Supervalu discovered it and would buy as much as they could produce to make their rhubarb tarts for the bakery. When my Uncle went to live in a nursing home his house was sold to help pay his fees and I knew the chances were that the rhubarb would be ploughed into the ground . Before the sale I dug up as many of the stools as I could and dragged them to my car. On instruction from my Uncle I choose a site which had very rich soil as it had been used to dump all the old straw from the cow sheds. The earth was dark and full of earthworms so I figured it would be happy here. Now 15 years later I carry on his tradition and manure the rhubarb in late winter and water it well when the weather is dry.
I pull it and give to my friends who also have their own memories of homemade rhubarb tart. I make 2 jams, rhubarb and strawberry and rhubarb and ginger and try to make at least one rhubarb crumble with grated orange. I freeze the excess and sometimes wonder what I can do with it all. An interesting side note is that the leaves are actually poisonous and during WW2 English soldiers died in France after eating the leaves rather than the stems.