“The more you learn, the more you realise how much you don’t know” goes the familiar saying – and how true it is. I remember the first year I knew Nick and he was living in a tiny shared cottage in my hometown, while I was still living with my parents. I knew from the start that he was super-sporty as I’d met him through a friend’s rowing club, but he was only slowly discovering how decidedly un-sporty I was. Still, it was early days and I found everything about him fascinating. ”Come over tonight for dinner”, he’d say, “and then we can watch the Tour de France”. Ordinarily I would have laughed this suggestion off, but because the relationship was brand new, everything about him was riveting and so I found myself watching practically the entire race over the first southern hemisphere winter of our relationship. I had assumed that the tour consisted of a few dozen individual riders pitted against each other who rode their bikes as fast as they could all day every day for 3 weeks and that the first one to Paris was the winner. Wrong. The more I got to know about the sport, the more the tactics, subtleties and personalities began to take shape, and the more I learnt, the more curious I became about the minor technicalities of the sport. Clearly, something struck a chord because it’s 15 years on and we’re still avidly watching the Tour every July (yay Chris Froome!).
When we arrived in England, I thought I was fairly au fait with the fruit and vegetables of the world. My mom had always cooked balanced meals with fresh vegetables and there was always fresh fruit in the house. But as I started blogging and getting more and more interested in the fresh products not only in my new city but on all the intriguing food blogs I was discovering around the world, I began to realise how little I knew. Durian, starfruit, cherimoyas and rambutans jostled for place alongside kohlrabi, romanesco, tomatillos and fiddleheads, opening up other worlds of taste that I’d never come across at the southern tip of Africa. But even on supermarket shelves in the UK there were vegetables that I had never tried, either because they struggle to grow in South Africa or because they simply weren’t stocked in the stores where my mom shopped. My mother-in-law always assured us that the difference between globe and Jerusalem artichokes was in the shape (the globes being rounder) – but upon arrival in the UK I discovered that Jerusalem artichokes had nothing to do with either Jerusalem or artichokes and were in fact tubers. Broad beans that are so much an indication of summer here in the UK were an unknown flavour to me – but it wasn’t long before I was totally hooked both on the ritual of peeling them and on their unique texture and flavour.
And then there was the perplexing rhubarb. I had never even clapped eyes on rhubarb till I arrived in London and I suspect Port Elizabeth’s lack of discernible seasons meant that it did not grow anywhere near where I grew up. It looked kind of like celery that had been dipped in red food colouring, but I was told that it was to be eaten sweet, like a fruit. But the tiniest nibble on a fresh stalk made me think for a moment that I was being teased – surely nobody could seriously want to eat this mouth-puckeringly tart stalk? With this not altogether positive first impression, it’s no wonder that rhubarb and I did not make friends immediately, and I’ve subsequently found that many of my countrymen who have ended up in London shared my suspicions. But I can assure them that once you get to know this plant a little better, you will see it in a whole new light.
5 THINGS YOU DID NOT KNOW ABOUT RHUBARB
1. Most people know that the leaves of the rhubarb plant are poisonous – but did you know that you can use them to make an insecticide? The leaves are boiled and the liquid strained off, added to soap flakes and used as a spray against aphids.
2. You can boil rhubarb pieces in a burnt pot and the pot will be easy to clean afterwards.
3. When actors have to simulate low background conversation, or the noise of a crowd, they repeat the word rhubarb continuously.
4. Cooking rhubarb in copper or aluminium pots will cause it to turn an unnatractive brown because of the meta’s reaction to the rhubarb’s natural acids – use stainless steel or enamelled cast iron instead.
5. The colour of the stalk has nothing to do with ripeness – redder stalks to not equal sweeter or riper rhubarb. Different varieties of rhubarb produce different colours, and forced rhubarb stalks are uniformly red because of the way it is grown in the dark.
One thing I do know about rhubarb is that I have learnt to love it since living in the UK. I don’t have a huge sweet tooth and rhubarb’s appealing tartness adds a dimension that I adore to sweet dishes, like my rhubarb strawberry and ginger tarts, or my more recent spiced rhubarb and strawberry upside down cake. Finding good rhubarb in the supermarket can be a bit of a challenge – often the stalks are disappointingly thin and bear only the faintest freckling of red. But as many of you know, darling husband acquired an allotment in May of this year and although we have not grown our own rhubarb yet (next year!), there is a wonderful institution called the “share the surplus” table where allotment gardeners leave their surplus produce for others to take. So while we are drowning in zucchini (and believe me, we are!!), we have no rhubarb. But the barter economy of the surplus table has corrected that imbalance and recently I picked up some astonishingly deep red rhubarb on the table. Unlike most rhubarb that’s only red on the outside and green on the inside, this was red all the way through the stem. Does anybody have any idea what variety this might be? I decided to add my rhubarb bounty to a muffin, and because rhubarb is known for pairing beautifully with other sweeter fruits, I also tossed in some sweet Forelle pears from sunny South Africa – they’re currently available in UK supermarkets and you will recognise them by their glorious pink blush. These muffins (a slightly tweaked version of this recipe) strike a perfect balance between sweet and tart, while the addition of wholewheat flour also renders them relatively healthy, without ever compromising on taste. The perfect snack when you’re tired and hungry after weeding your allotment
Also making muffins are:
- Kalyn, who made savoury wholewheat zucchini muffins with feta, Parmesan and spring green onions
- Michelle, who made pumpkin, almond and cinnamon muffins
- Margot, who made jam-filled dark chocolate muffins
- Meeta, who made wholewheat goji granola muffins
- 150g (1 cup) wholemeal self-raising flour
- 150g (1 cup) white self-raising flour
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp ground nutmeg
- ¼ tsp ground ginger
- 115g (½ cup) + 1 Tbsp sugar (I used golden caster)
- 45 g (3 Tbsp) butter, melted
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 2 Tbsp runny honey
- 250ml (1 cup) milk (I used full cream)
- 2 cups rhubarb, chopped into 2cm lengths
- 1 pear, peeled and cut into small cubes
- Pre-heat the oven to 190C.
- Stir 1 Tbsp of the caster sugar into the chopped rhubarb.
- Mix both flours, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg into a large bowl, then add the sugar.
- In a separate bowl, combine the butter, egg, honey and milk. Pour this mix into the dry ingredients and stir gently until just combined but do not overmix.
- Fold the rhubarb and pear into the mix - the mixture will be quite dense and relatively dry, rather than a batter. Don't worry! The rhubarb will release moisture as it bakes.
- Spoon the mixture into lightly greased muffin tins (12 standard or 6 jumbo muffin cups).
- Bake for about 25 minutes or until golden - test by checking if a skewer inserted into the centre of a muffin comes out clean.
- Allow to fool for 5 minutes, then run a palette knife round the rip of each muffin cup and remove from the tin.