Rhubarb may well be the most versatile of plants with the most interesting of backgrounds. It’s hard to believe now, but it was only in relatively recent food history that it has become a staple in most gardens, and a regular in an array of dishes, mostly desserts, very often pies or purees, and, in this case, jam.
It started the route to our backyards via the Silk Road (also called the Spice Road) from China and the Far East, in those days for medical purposes. The root of the rhubarb had laxative value. Perhaps the stem had been ignored for most of its first couple of thousands of years of life because the leaves are poisonous, although it seems about five kilograms of leaves need to be taken before the oxalic acid, the culprit, takes hold.
It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that adding sugar to the stems, and cooking them until they softened and absorbed the sweetness, made rhubarb popular. The Glutton’s Glossary (John Ayto, Routledge, 1990), reports that the revered Mrs Beeton, who may have been known only by her mother as Isabella, wrote in 1861 in her Book of Household Management that rhubarb “was comparatively little known within the last 20 or 30 years, but it is now cultivated in almost every British garden”.
Add almost every Australian garden to that suggestion. It’s always been part of my existence. My grandmother had a great patch in her prolific garden in Daylesford, my mother always had it in our gardens in inner Melbourne, and now my brother has continued with massive stems in his yard at Musk Vale.
No matter what the climate, or how well or poorly you treat it, rhubarb comes through. Our bush backyard in Victoria’s Gippsland always has rhubarb shoots pushing back against the invading rabbits, who it seems, are also not keen on the leaves of the rhubarb.
Adding cloves may be a controversial suggestion, and ditto with the ginger. The spiciness of the clove has always been a great mate of rhubarb’s great mate, the apple, and the inner heat of the ginger makes this combination not only sweet and spicy but also with a touch of “golly that ginger gives a kick”.