Rhubarb crumble – a very English pleasure


20070409_rhubarbcrumbletitle I have had a long acquaintance with rhubarb – in fact I first encountered it about 25 years ago while still at school.  But I only ate it for the first time about a year ago, and I didn’t cook with it until this month.  So what, I hear you ask, was my acquaintance with rhubarb then, if not culinary in nature?  Well, it’s a long story – and since this is a one-day and not a five-day match, I’ll try to give you the potted version.

The high school that I attended was a fine institution, but amongst its many virtues one could not count an overabundance of language options.  There were, of course, English and Afrikaans; also Xhosa (the local African language of the area).  But no French, German, Spanish or any other western European language – which was a little disappointing to a lingophile like me.  But what we did have was Latin.  Yes – the language that nobody speaks any more, although there were rumours that the headmistress and former Latin teacher Mrs Jenkins made her family speak Latin at the breakfast table…  But I digress.  After a year of Mrs Jenkins’ teaching us, she retired and in her place arrived Miss Gatley – fresh out of teachers’ training college (hi Gail!!).

I took to Miss Gatley from day one.  Here was a teacher who was a) not that much older than the pupils and b) in possession of a fully functioning sense of humour and c) easily distracted from the subject matter!  What more could one want??!  She was always cracking the most groan-inducing jokes and puns but we secretly loved them.  She would let us do song and dance routines in her class.  She took it in good spirits when we teased her mercilessly about being secretly in love with the science teacher (one of only two male teachers at an all-girls’ school and therefore the focus of a disproportionate amount of our interest!).  She laughed along when we giggled about her old-fashioned Hush Puppy shoes and her Ford Anglia car (which we said was so old that it came from the factory with square tyres because the wheel had not yet been invented…).  People used to look at me in shocked disbelief when I said Latin was fun – but it really was!  Not just the Latin but the constant side-shows that punctuated our every class.

In one memorable digression from the syllabus, Miss Gatley told us that when a crowd of extras on stage were required to produce a general hubbub, they would often be told to shout the word rhubarb (although not in unison!).  Apparently the movements that your mouth make when saying it look as if you are saying all sorts of things rather than just “la la la”, and the sound that is produced is a kind of indistinguishable low mutter.  We were all fascinated by this snippet of information and rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb became our class shorthand for long-winded babble – like blah blah blah.  And later that year, when I decided to write, copy and distribute a little subversive newsletter full of jokes at the expense of our teachers, I christened it The Rhubarb and the Honey Bee (Mrs Honey was our homeroom teacher; our class was B1; and rhubarb was our secret in-joke).  I wrote this newsletter for four years, and when most classmates think back to me as a schoolgirl it is the Rhubarb and the Honey Bee that they remember.

So it’s rather ironic that I had absolutely no idea at the time what rhubarb might be!!  I had20070409_rhubarb a vague notion that it was sorta kinda like beetroot, but of course I could not have been wider of the mark.  Rhubarb (or Rheum rhabarbarum) looks a lot more like celery than beetroot but is in fact closely related to sorrel and buckwheat.  Like celery, the edible part consists of long fleshy stalks or petioles topped with leaves (which are usually discarded), but unlike the green stalks of celery, the rhubarb’s stalks are a delightful shade of pinky red.  The plant is thought to have originated in Asia where there is a long history of its being used in Chinese medicine as a laxative.  The first records of rhubarb being eaten in England do not apear until the 17th century – unsurprisingly at about the same time as when sugar became more freely available to the common people:  rhubarb is very tart and I can’t imagine that eating it without sugar would be much fun!  Oh, and don’t eat the leaves – they are full of oxalic acid which is toxic to humans!

Although rhubarb should correctly be classified as a vegetable (we eat the stem, not the fruit), it is predominantly used in sweet dishes such as compotes, pies and crumbles, so that practice has arisen of referring to it as a fruit.  In fact, here in England it is one of the few fruits that is in season over the bleak months of January and February. But wait – how come the pictures of rhubarb that I have seen in magazines and the stalks I have eaten in restaurants are such a vivid red and mine shade into dark green?  Well, that’s because the stuff you get in the depths of winter is forced rhubarb.  This means that the young plants are planted in warm, moist sheds in the depths of the Christmas season’s freezing cold.  The warmth tells them to start growing – but what the sheds do is to keep them in total darkness.  So the plants grow tall and fast, searching desperately for the light, creating stalks of a far more delicate texture than their cousins that grow in the light.  The colour, even when cooked, is far more vibrant and the taste far more delicate.

My rhubarb was of the garden variety – the forced stuff disappears around March.  And although it looked pretty vibrant when raw, the colour largely dissipated upon cooking :-(  Still, if you’re looking for an English dessert, it doesn’t come much more authentic than this.  To me, the particularly English skill of “making do” comes to the fore here – I mean, only a nation desperate for a fruity dessert in the frosty depths of February would think to persuade a celery-like plant to grow in total darkness so that they could stew it up with sugar and smother it in crumble… :-)  The end result tastes rather like the world’s tartest apples – like a harbinger of the season of plenty to follow – but tempered with the sweetness of the crumble.  Yum.

The recipe I used was Nigella Lawson’s from Feast which was easy and worked well – my only complaint was that she reckoned this quantity serves ten – but to my mind that would be pushing your luck.  Six seems far more reasonable – and I am vaguely embarrassed to say that four of us actually polished this off…  I would also in future add ginger, although the original recipe does not call for it.

20070409_rhubarbcrumble RHUBARB CRUMBLE (serves 6)


For the filling:
about 750g of rhubarb, cut into 1cm pieces
50g caster sugar
15g butter
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
1 Tbsp cornflour (cornstarch)

For the crumble topping:
150g all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
110g unsalted butter, cold and diced
3 Tbsp ordinary sugar
3 Tbsp Demerara sugar


Preheat the oven to 180C. Combine the filling ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the butter is melted and the sugar is well dissolved. Turn out into a small oven-proof dish (the rhubarb must cover the bottom of the dish).  At this point I sprinkled the rhubarb generously with powdered ginger as I had none of the fresh stuff, but next time I might add some finely chopped ginger to the rhubarb mix in the pan.

Combine the flour and baking powder in a mixing bowl. Add the butter and rub into the flour mixture with your hands until you achieve a coarse texture like breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugars with a fork.

Cover the rhubarb filling evenly with the crumble. Bake 35 to 45 minutes or until bubbly and well-browned. Let cool at least five minutes before serving with custard or whipped cream.

This has been submitted as a contribution to the lovely Sam‘s Fish & Quips event to celebrate all things edible and English on 23 April – St George’s Day – and to show the world that English cuisine is no laughing matter! 


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  1. says

    thanks for your entry jeanne .
    it’s interesting – I grew up on rhubarb crumble I don’t think we ever put cornstarch in it. I have noticed in the US cornstarch is used a lot in crumbles and pies too.

  2. says

    Great minds think alike! I just picked rhubarb from my garden – my very first harvest – and I’m going to make a rhubarb-apple upside down cake. I’ll have it on the blog tomorrow sometime.
    I prefer to roast the rhubarb in the oven, then it doesn’t lose it’s colour much.
    Isn’t it a wonderful fruit?

  3. says

    We grew up using “Rhubarb, rhubarb” as a backstage mumble too. Like the sound of your latin class, definitely more lively than the usual dusty latin grammar! We also grew up with rhubarb crumble, rhubarb fool and rhubarb and custard. I like it with ginger and a squeeze of orange these days, but can’t often get it here. Rhubarb root was rumoured to be good for dying hair, but apparently it is poisonous, so we were never able to try it out as school girls, as gardeners suspicious of our motives never let us get our hands on any.

  4. herschelian says

    In the 50s/60s SABC used to broadcast the (late lamented) Goon Show every week, and I adored it. That was where I first came across rhubarb as a crowd mumble:
    “During radio programmes of the 1920s and 1930s, the background noise for crowd scenes was often achieved by a moderately large group of people mumbling “rhubarb” under their breath with random inflections. This was often parodied by Milligan, who would try to get the same effect with only three or four people. After some time, Secombe began throwing in “custard” during these scenes (For example in The Fear of Wages and Wings Over Dagenham). About 10 years after The Goon Show ceased production, Secombe, Eric Sykes and a host of other well-known comic actors made the short film ‘Rhubarb’ in which the entire script consisted of what Milligan called rhubarbs.”
    My M-in-law, a fine cook, never put cornflour in her rhubarb crumble, she used Arrowroot, does the same job, but leaves the thickened juices clear whereas the cornflour makes it go cloudy. BTW the sainted Delia has a recipe for Rhubarb Crumble Ice Cream! delish!
    [edit] Parp!

  5. says

    My drama teacher in high school must have been confused – he told us to mumble “watermelon, cantaloupe, watermelon, cantaloupe, ….”! =)

  6. says

    Perhaps the quintessential English dessert, so long as you don’t call the custard “crème anglais” as one chef did recently on “Great British Menu”! I made some rhubarb compote the other day and I find it tastes much better if not over-sweetened. Also, it turns light pink when cooked but much darker if you chill it afterwards. Either way it’s a great vegetable/fruit!

  7. says

    I bought my first ever rhubarb at a farmer’s just a few weeks ago and it was green rather than red, the seller said it was just as good as the red but didn’t explain further, so thanks for your explanation of the colour. It was really good too, if over thickened. I used a Rick Stein recipe that called for three tablespoons flour, whereas I think one would have done the trick, that’s the first time one of his recipes hasn’t worked properly for me. Right, now I’m off to carpe diem.

  8. says

    Hi Jeanne – thanks for your entry. I think the rhubarb rhubarb mumble thingy is commonplace in Britain too. I grew up on (homegrown) rhubarb crumble and I loathed it as a kid but I love it now and I made some just a couple of weeks ago for my own fish and quips entry.
    Thanks for taking part in Fish and Quips and for sharing the story (which I loved).

  9. says

    You’ve got to love rhubarb – one of our best indigenous ingredients. I’m a bit miffed I never got the chance to try this one out – will have to save for next year.

  10. says

    Rhubarb is the easiest crop to grow. It needs no care and isn’t attacked by anything. And the more you pull the more it grows It has been early this year.
    But I don’t recognise your crumble. What on earth is the point of butter when cooking the rhubarb, you don’t need to fry it. Just put the pieces in the pan over a low heat and stir them frequently to stop them sticking, they’ll release juice which will cook the rest and evaporate. And why add vanilla? What’s wrong with the taste of rhubarb? What on earth is corn flour for? And why add sugar? There’s sugar in the crumble mix (6 table spoonsfull fer goodness sake should be enough for anyone) and in the accompanying custard or ice-cream.
    In other words, its rhubarb crumble — but not as we recognise it Jim :)

  11. says

    Just noticed you say recipe is from Nigella Lawson’s. I am confounded by the reference to ‘all purpose’ flour. Never seen such a thing in UK — use self raising.

  12. Aishah Mohamed says

    hi there,
    i am from cape town,south africa. my boyfriend is Scottish and keeps whinning about rhubarb and custard pudding!!!.. its getting me more and more phyched up to the closest Ive managed to come to rhubarb is, the sweeties they try and mock over here!!.. well, I have no idea where to source them and they are most certainly not something sold over our fancy fruit growers counters either..if you have any idea where I can get hold of thoses buggers please, I would truly jump up and down with great excitement!!
    wish you all the best and take care
    with luv from cape town