With stalks varying from deep rich reds to hot pink shades, rhubarb always signals that warm weather and sunshine are on their way. Farmer Brian French of Lennox Farms can barely harvest enough rhubarb to keep it on grocery store shelves when the sun starts shining in April, even though the harvest of indoor forced rhubarb starts as early as February, prompting sweet thoughts of rhubarb pie before the snow has even thawed.
Most of us are familiar with the thick tough stalks of field rhubarb that require a fair amount of sugar when cooking to ease its tart taste but the lesser-known forced rhubarb, distinguished by its hot pink hue, has a much less abrasive tasting stalk with a more subtle tartness but all of the flavour. The most significant difference comes in how it’s grown – the stalks are ‘forced’ to grow in heated dark sheds, warmed to about 10 degrees, without a single glimpse of daylight. This honed method yields a much sweeter and tender stalk than the outdoor variety.
On a particularly warm day at the end of April, I made my way just north of Orangeville to the town of Shelburne to visit Lennox Farms. The farm is easily recognizable as a rhubarb mecca by their heart shaped logo pierced with a rhubarb arrow that greets you at the side of the road. As I entered the largest producer of rhubarb in North America and the last grower of forced rhubarb in Ontario, I was enthusiastically greeted by Brian French and his farm dog Sprout (named after Brussels of course) who’s family knows a thing or two about rhubarb, having grown the vegetable in Canada since the 1880’s.
French, like many farmers, is a passionate grower. He takes his profession and growing legacy seriously, proudly displaying vibrant stalks of rhubarb, brussels sprouts and pea flowers intertwined on an arm sleeve of tattoos, topped with a shoulder stamp denoting his family legacy as a 5th generation farmer. He walks me through the growing process, the forcing sheds, the rhubarb seedlings and the outdoor fields, which span over an incredible 500 acres.
Forced rhubarb is said to have originated in England and is centralized in a pocket known as the Rhubarb Triangle. The triangle sits roughly 14km between Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford in West Yorkshire and at one point was producing 90% of the worlds forced rhubarb. The forced rhubarb here has been given the PDO or Protected Designation of Origin stamp, putting it in the same category as Parmigiano-Reggiano, Balsamic Vinegar & Champagne.
Farmer French’s great grandfather came to Canada from England bringing his knowledge and love of cultivating rhubarb with him. In order to produce forced rhubarb, bulbs are grown for two years in the field without being harvested. This ensures the bulbs will have enough stored energy to grow in the dark when they are transplanted inside at the end of the growing season in November.
There are three forcing sheds on Lennox Farm, which together can produce 30,000lbs of forced rhubarb each year. A small number compared to the 200,000lbs hauled in from the outdoor fields each season. A flick of a dim light in the dark shed reveals a magical sight of row upon row of fluorescent pink rhubarb topped with bright yellow leaves. Unlike in Yorkshire, French doesn’t harvest by candlelight, but they do pick everything the old fashioned way – by hand. The rhubarb is fragile and marks easily, so when picking, the farmers cradle it in one arm, like a baby. The harvesting isn’t the hardest part, moving the bulbs from the fields to the sheds is back breaking work, after two years of growing, they can weigh up to 80lbs but can also grow to 150lbs each.
As we wandered into the warm, dim shed, French cracked off a stalk for me to taste, insisting I enjoy it raw. I took a small bite bracing for tear-inducing sourness but was instead surprised by the mildly tart, verging on sweet flavour. I ate the entire stalk. The French family’s favourite way to enjoy it? Not raw, but stewed, without sugar and with other seasonal fruit and eaten for breakfast with granola or yogurt all year long.
Forced rhubarb lends itself well to baking – pies, tarts, crumbles or bars and goes especially well with a bowl of warm custard. Forced rhubarb is great in both sweet and savory applications because it is so much sweeter then the outdoor variety.
You can find forced rhubarb from at farmers markets across the city and at some specialty grocery stores. Lennox Farms is the last producer of this sweet rhubarb in Ontario, carrying on a growing tradition that produces a unique vegetable that deserves a spot on your dinner/dessert table. If you miss the forced rhubarb season, don’t worry, outdoor rhubarb is available all summer long.