Rhubarb has never been so popular. It's on every restaurant menu – often in classic form as a crumble, but at times used as an unusual accompaniment to oily fish or rabbit where its sharpness lends a welcome balance.
The earliest 'forced' rhubarb comes in February, grown in the dark in sheds, straining and stretching up to the light, its leaves the sunny colour of English mustard. You can actually hear the buds popping in these sheds, so quiet are they. April however is the time to be pickling, making jam and fools, churning ice creams or jarring as the rhubarb is at its natural peak.
Now a firm favourite in the English kitchen, rhubarb is indigenous to Asia and appeared in the British diet some 400 years ago. The earliest mentions of this rhizome are way back in 2700BC China, where it was grown as a medicine mainly for its digestive benefits. Our cultivated version has much less medicinal benefit that its Chinese ancestor.
Be wary of the leaves, which are poisonous – although you would have to eat quite a few to do any harm.
You can freeze rhubarb or use any of the suggestions above to increase its shelf-life, although it is at its peak enjoyed simply poached gently. It is best kept in the fridge for three to five days.