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13 March 2014updated 30 Jun 2021 11:51am

Who knew rhubarb had a dark side?

The dark underworld of West Yorkshire rhubarb forcing.

By Felicity Cloake

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.

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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