Propagate, propagate: a Worcestershire gardener uses army surplus metal pyramids to force rhubarb in 1962. (Photo: Getty)
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Who knew rhubarb had a dark side?

The dark underworld of West Yorkshire rhubarb forcing.

Even the kindest of souls would struggle to describe Jonathan Westwood’s West Yorkshire farm as a rural idyll. Instead of rolling hills and bleating sheep there are long, low sheds and the drone of traffic from the M62 and M1; just past the pigs and cabbages lie slip roads and raw new housing estates.

Yet inside those sheds, it’s still 1880. The smell hits me as I duck through a crooked Victorian doorway: warm and vegetal, almost rainforesty. Westwood switches on his torch, and rhubarb looms out of the gloom, ranks of spindly pink stalks and acid yellow leaves stretching back as far as the eye can see.

It’s a surprisingly unsettling experience for anyone who read The Day of the Triffids at an impressionable age and so I’m pretty keen to get out again, though not before he has explained that growers started raising the plants in the dark in the late 19th century, to keep the stems tender and sweet. With enough warmth and water, he says with enthusiasm, they can put on two inches a day. Shudder.

Slimy green tendrils of stewed rhubarb never held any fear for me at school, but I find these slender pink stems, shooting up in the silent darkness, strangely eerie. Legend has it that you can even hear “forced” rhubarb growing; its buds bursting, leaves unfurling, stems creaking. Fortunately, I don’t.

The farm sits in a triangle of land between Wakefield, Leeds and Morley which has been a hotbed of indoor rhubarb production for a century and a half, thanks to good soil, a frosty microclimate and (once upon a time at least) a ready supply of fuel from the mines to heat the sheds. Even the fertiliser is unmistakably local; as we drive round the farm Westwood points out great soggy piles of the “shoddy”, or wool waste, that he buys from a mill in nearby Dewsbury.

In the triangle’s heyday during the Second World War, when the government fixed the price of rhubarb to feed a population starved of fruit, there were more than 200 growers in the area. Many folded once bananas returned to Britain, and by the 1980s, Westwood recalls, sales were so poor that the biggest rhubarb grower in the area was ready to pack it in altogether – “and then we managed to get it into the supermarkets”.

This coup, coupled with a revival of interest in classic British cookery, saved the few growers that remained. Westwood sells everything he can grow under the Red Tractor badge and is hoping next year to extend the indoor season, which runs from November to April, to compete with the Dutch.

But it’s still not an easy business: the fuel and labour costs make forced rhubarb an expensive crop to grow. Westwood employs almost 40 people year round and some of them have been working for him for nearly 50 years. Everything, from watering to harvesting and packing, is done by hand.

With only ten growers still operating in the triangle, it’s little wonder the Leeds and District Market Gardeners Association, now in its 94th year, has had to give up the Best Sticks competition at its annual rhubarb dinner-dance for lack of interest. “I think I won it four years in a row – it was just embarrassing,” Westwood says, looking not at all embarrassed.

Indeed, the certificates are still proudly pinned up on the walls above his head in the cluttered farm office where he works with his sister and cousin. “Best box of Timperley”, “Best six sticks of Fenton”, they read – tributes to a vanished world where the Rhubarb Express ran nightly from Wakefield to the London markets.

I ask him what keeps him in the business. “Madness. Sheer madness!” he sighs, shaking his head ruefully. Yorkshire through and through, just like his rhubarb.

Next week: John Burnside on nature

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

Don't Tell the Bride YouTube screengrab
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How did Don’t Tell the Bride lose its spark?

Falling out of the love with reality TV’s wedding planning hit.

Steph, 23, from Nottinghamshire, is standing in a drizzly field wearing a wedding dress. Her betrothed, Billy, is running around in a tweed flat cap trying to make some pigs walk in “a continuous parade”. A man from Guinness World Records is watching with a clipboard, shaking his head. Bridesmaids gaze sorrowfully into the middle distance, each in a damp pig onesie.

Thus ends the second wedding in E4’s new series of Don’t Tell the Bride – and the programme’s integrity with it.

When the classic programme, which follows grooms attempting to plan their wedding (punchline: human males doing some organising), began a decade ago on BBC Three, it had the raw spark of unpredictability. For eight years, the show did nothing fancy with the format, and stuck with pretty ordinary couples who had few eccentric aspirations for their wedding day.

This usually resulted in run-of-the-mill, mildly disappointing weddings where the worst thing that happened would be a reception at the nearest motorway pub, or an ill-fitting New Look low heel.

It sounds dull, but anyone who has religiously watched it knows that the more low-key weddings expose what is truly intriguing about this programme: the unconditional commitment – or doomed nature – of a relationship. As one of the show’s superfans told the Radio Times a couple of years ago:

“It’s perfect, and not in an ironic or post-ironic or snarky way. The format has the solemn weight of a ceremony . . . Don’t Tell the Bride is not about ruined weddings, it’s about hope. Every wedding is a demonstration of how our ambitions curve away from our abilities. It’s a show about striving to deserve love and how that’s rarely enough.”

It also meant that when there were bombshells, they were stand-out episodes. High drama like Series 4’s notorious Las Vegas wedding almost resulting in a no-show bride. Or heart-warming surprises like the geezer Luke in Series 3 playing Fifa and guzzling a tinny on his wedding morning, who incongruously pulls off a stonking wedding day (complete with special permission from the Catholic Church).

For its eight years on BBC Three, a few wildcard weddings were thrown into the mix of each series. Then the show had a brief affair with BBC One, a flirt with Sky, and is now on its tenth year, 13th series and in a brand new relationship – with the more outrageous E4.

During its journey from BBC Three, the show has been losing its way. Tedious relationship preamble has been used to beef up each episode. Some of the grooms are cruel rather than clueless, or seem more pathetic and vulnerable than naïve. And wackier weddings have become the norm.

The programme has now fully split from its understated roots. Since it kicked off at the end of July, every wedding has been a publicity stunt. The pig farm nuptials are sandwiched between a Costa del Sol-based parasail monstrosity and an Eighties Neighbours-themed ceremony, for example. All facilitated by producers clearly handing the groom and best men karaoke booth-style props (sombreros! Inflatable guitars! Wigs!) to soup up the living room planning process.

Such hamminess doesn’t give us the same fly-on-the-wall flavour of a relationship as the older episodes. But maybe this level of artifice is appropriate. As one groom revealed to enraged fans in The Sun this week, the ceremonies filmed are not actually legally binding. “It makes a bit of a mockery of the process that the bride and groom go through this huge ordeal for a ceremony which isn’t even legal,” he said. Perhaps we should’ve predicted it would all eventually end in divorce – from reality.

Don’t Tell the Bride is on E4 at 9pm

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.