Rhubarb: The Jewel of Danish-Canadian Garden
One of the most rewarding sights to behold is the first ruby-red rhubarb, the stalks shimmering like a jeweled prize after many winters. Though now almost every Danish-Canadian Garden has a crown of rhubarb, that was not always the case. It was a long road for the sour plant to arrive here, and the journey included neither pies nor porridge at first.
A sought-after medicine
The earliest records of rhubarb date back to 2700 BC in China where the root was used medicinally as a laxative, which was foundational for treatment at that time. The best plants for this purpose were native to China, Tibet, and Mongolia. This meant that if the Europeans wanted this precious, elusive rhubarb root – and they did – they had to import it. You know the Silk Road that saw to the passage of fine porcelain, tea, spices, and silk? Dried rhubarb was on that road alongside those luxury goods by the early 15th century. In fact, “the finest quality rhubarb was more expensive than cinnamon or saffron,” according to Laura Kelley, author of The Silk Road Gourmet. Who knew?!
Rhubarb’s first experience in European soil
After tiring of relying on imported rhubarb, the Europeans began trying to produce the desirable plant on their own soil. Explorers, missionaries, and botanists quested for centuries to cultivate “True Rhubarb”—the variety from unreachable parts of Asia that was of highest medicinal quality. To make the long story short, their mission was fruitless. Frustrated, these gardeners found the silver lining; their efforts to grow rhubarb for medicine had primed their land to grow rhubarb for cooking. By the time the 18th century rolled around, the English were baking it into sweet pies and tarts. The availability of cheap sugar allowed the sour vegetable to be used in sweet dishes. That sugar, along with further improvements to varieties and growing techniques, produced sweeter, tenderer stalks and sparked a rhubarb boom that peaked between the world wars.
Today’s rhubarb rainbow
Since that boom, people in Denmark – and the northern hemisphere, Rhubarb is literally a key ingredient in 1000’s of recipes and a personal favourite of my own.
Our Danish Canadian immigrants brought this beloved fruit with them when coming to Canada, like many other family homes in Canada, our rhubarb used in our Saga Café is from an original root from over 100 years ago brought to Canada.
Although rhubarb may be more commonplace now than it was on the Silk Road, it is a treasure just the same. Seeing and tasting rhubarb is like receiving a medal for crossing winter’s finish line and opening a big, fat invitation to peak-season produce. I wish for you many bags full of freshly-pulled rhubarb from the gardens of neighbors and friends – and perhaps even your very own. Let us revel in it while it is here.
As summer is finally here, I wanted to make just one recipe with Rhubarbs. This is a wonderful Rhubarb juice which I have been enjoying with my “bubble water” (Perrier water) and I also mixed it with some champagne, or you could use your favorite sparkling wine, all unbelievably delicious. This late in the season it gets more challenging finding good Rhubarbs so when you shop for it, make sure the stalks are bright in color and crisp (no bending stalks here).
Fun Rhubarb fact: did you know that back in the 1940’s a New York court decided that Rhubarbs should be referred to as a fruit rather than a vegetable, due to fact that it’s usually paired with other fruits when cooking (guilty by association)
Rhubarb juice (makes 2 3/4 cups)
5 rhubarb stalks (580 grams)
200 grams sugar (1 cup)
500ml water (or 2 cups)
Wash bottle or other glass container in hot soapy water, rinse well. Bring a kettle of water to a boil and poor into cleaned class container, allow to sit until rhubarb juice is ready.
Rinse and chop rhubarbs into 2 cm (3/4 inch) pieces. Place rhubarb into a cooking pot, add sugar and water. Bring up to a slow boil and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh sieve into a bowl. Return juice back into cleaned cooking pot, bring back to a simmer and poor into sterilized glass container. Store in refrigerator for up to 1 month. Enjoy!
Rhubarb has long been a traditional staple in many Danish and Danish Canadian homes. For this I will be forever grateful.
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