Gathering the fruits (or are they vegetables) of my labour
PUBLISHED: 17:19 17 May 2019 | UPDATED: 17:19 17 May 2019
Keith Skipper's celebrating good old rhubarb this week
Colin Riches, popular Methodist minister and Norfolk dialect specialist, loved the way lay preachers of the old school trimmed country pulpits with sermons built on homely philosophical gems.
One of his favourites delivered by a rural veteran well over a century ago in a little red brick chapel still carries a tantalising tang : "The Lord, he knew what he wuz a'dewin', mearkin' rhubarb come afore strawberries".
I have long regarded both as first-class seasonal treats to set taste buds and childhood recollections working overtime. I have cultivated deep respect and gratitude for creative creeds of others. Better than being eaten up by envy or guilt.
That handy compromise began when father and useful members of his gardening army banished me to gloomy corners of the shed to find a tray of King Edward seed potatoes wedged between a scrum of old rubber boots and the green pram that took me and several others on early state visits round the parish.
I found a rat - and a perfect excuse to retire indoors for a quiet read. Although the foreman may have smelt a rat whenever I came up with a new reason for missing digging, planting, watering, weeding and harvesting duties, it was generally agreed my absence was more likely to enhance productivity from willing workers.
I did a deal with headscarved women along strawberry rows in nearby villages where flying fingers put my irritable fumbling to shame. They paidme a small fee to take their loaded baskets to the weighing and paying station.
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So I plodded instead of picked, mused rather than moaned and ate as many as possible without feeling sick. I went home with just about enough money to warrant packed sandwiches and a bottle of cold tea for the next day's exertions.
Our homegrown rhubarb enjoyed an enviable reputation among neighbours always keen to barter with produce from their own fertile patches. I like to think I played a small but significant part in father's glow as tributes were paid and exchanges made. His bucket-and-spade sessions after visits to the family seat clearly boosted quality of our generously-leafed quota. It was a proud team effort.
There lingered a tendency among a few also-rans in the rhubarb stakes to dismiss it as no more than "celery gone bloodshot" while its healthy purging qualities would be reduced to the poetic Norfolk chant of "drawing one's backside up to one's elbows" That is the sanitised version for those of a tender disposition.
I still prefer it stewed with a drizzle of sugar although I have been tempted into adding the odd downpour of evaporated milk for a Sunday tea diversion. Crumbles, pies and tarts are never turned away while rhubarb merged with other fruits can produce an outstanding variety of jams. Don't forget to add root ginger or pectin where necessary.
For all its obvious virtues, there remains a jokey flavour about one of my favourite treats. While replenishing stocks at a local outlet the other morning, a broad Norfolk voice put my entire life's work and culinary tastes into perspective: "Yew tork it. Yew write it. Spooz yew might as well eat it anorl!". I took this completion of this hat-trick as a bit of a compliment.
Of course, the very word "rhubarb" is often used by actors talking quietly to one another on stage to simulate real conversation since it contains no harsh-sounding consonants and is hard to detect.. Perhaps some of our elected representatives from parish council chamber to House of Commons ought to follow suit when it comes to dispensing verbal fruit.
While rhubarb is normally considered to be a vegetable, a New York court decided in 1947 that as it was used in the United States as a fruit it should be considered a fruit for the purposes of regulation and duties.
The United Kingdom's first rhubarb of the year is harvested by candlelight in dark sheds dotted around the noted "Rhubarb Triangle" of Wakefield, Leeds and Morley, a practice that produces a sweeter, more tender stalk. It has been used for medical purposes by the Chinese for thousands of years.
Rhubarb can be forced or encouraged to grow by raising the local temperature, usually by placing an upturned bucket over the new shoots. Another sound use for the good ole family pail. Even I could have managed that little cover-up operation.