Category Archives: Rhubarb Knowledge

The Rhubarb Emporium

A late afternoon glass of prosecco by the Rialto – surely the perfect way to celebrate reaching the final destination for our favourite vegetable?

It’s warm, humid and entirely saturated with tourists, but I’ve had an inane grin on my face ever since arriving on the train from San Benedetto yesterday afternoon.

It’s funny how people regard you suspiciously if you’re alone and smiling.

Does he know something I don’t know? Is he smirking at ME?

Truth is, you can’t help but smile involuntarily when in Venice. Add in one gorgeous day, and it’s no wonder you’re grinning. Of course, if you’ve travelled nearly 20,000 kilometres to get here, an insane grin is all but compulsory.

Just opposite where I’m sitting on the Grand Canal is the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the key trading centre leased by the Venetians to foreign merchants around 800 years ago – around the time Marco Polo did us all a favour and brought the rheum to Europe.

So, if you were a pouch of dried rhubarb (you lost your leaves long, long ago – sorry, but it did take months to cross them deserts) this is where your Turkish owner would be flogging you whilst extolling your virtues as a purgative extraordinaire. Here amongst the spices, porcelain, pelts, silks and other bizarre pharmacopia, you would be sold for ridiculous sums to those well-heeled gents looking to keep the four ‘Essential Humours’ in balance.

You’ve come a long way. You’ve braved the barbarians on the Central Asian steppes, survived the interminable camel rides, scaled the formidable Tian Shan and avoided questionable Georgian mineral water.

For you, O Pouch of Rhubarb, this is as far as you come.

You’ll continue your travels in due course, but New England will have to wait a good few centuries before other species of the rhubarb clan wander across the Atlantic to grace their puddings.

Who would ever have thought that the roots of a bizarre-looking vegetable would ever have made it from the desolate, poverty-stricken hillsides just the wrong side of the Great Wall of China to arguably the most beautiful city in the world at the mouth of the Adriatic?

I’m mildly suprised I made it myself.

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Stay out of the Rhubarb!

So, we know by now that China is the ‘barb’s home patch, and that it became a prized trade commodity on account of its incredible ability to maim, poison and prompt a thorough evacuation.

It passed through Russia, Central Asia and Europe, eventually landing in the US.

But was it afforded the respect it was due, having traveled all those thousands of miles?

I think not, dear reader.

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The Rhubarb Triangle

No doubt at some point over the past few weeks, as you have been feverishly awaiting the latest news from my trek across Eurasia in search of evidence of the marvellous rhubarb, it will have occurred to you just how tasty rhubarb actually is.

I’d imagine it has been a good few months, nay, years since your last slice of rhubarb and apple tart, but hey – doesn’t all this reading about the red stuff make your juices flow? Doesn’t it??

Well, dear reader, you may be motivated to pile down to Tesco and pick up a bunch of petioles, or maybe even mosey on over to your nearest farmers’ market and get your hands on the organic-tastic variety.

But for those looking to pimp their veggie patch, you’ll need to travel a little further. Introducing the Kobe Beef of the rheum world, the Rhubarb Triangle is where the sweetest and most succulent ‘champagne rhubarb’ is reputed to be found:

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Russians Loving the Rheum

There is heaps of information from the 17th century that documents the Russians’ demand for our tasty leafy friend, with traders traveling the length of the Northern Rhubarb Road fairly extensively from the Hexi Corridor to the Central Apothecary Office in St. Petersburg.

No wonder the Chinese thought it no idle threat to withhold rhubarb from the Russians on several occasions. They must have been doing something with the plant, clearly.

Sadly, that ruse wasn’t up to much when the Chinese tried the same thing on the Brits, as we know. It seems the emperor wasn’t all that well-informed about everyday life over in Blighty, where the hardy plant was already a staple of Victorian allotments.

Anyhow, we’re not really all about the Northern Rhubarb Road on this trip. Once you’re across the border you can hop on an old Soviet train – still functioning despite the implosion of the country nearly 20 years ago – and within a few days of playing cards and drinking a ferocious amount of vodka with your fellow passengers, you’ll be in Moscow. Done.

None of this train, bus, taxi, crossing-borders, negotiating hundreds of different languages lark. By comparison it’s all pretty simple really.

So that’s precisely why we’re taking our very own southern Rhubarb Rhoute. It’s warmer. The food’s better. We get to go to Samarqand.

No brainer, really.

Prized Commodity

There are simpler things to do in life than lug rhubarb from China to Venice. The distances are huge, the sun unforgiving and the plov absolutely inedible at times. Even today it’s far from straightforward, so imagine a time without ashfelt roads, conveniently located caravanserai or an abundance of vodka.

Given the general hassle and expense involved in carrying the plant across the whole breadth of Asia, and the challenges of preserving it from the desert sun and attacks of indicriminate insects, it was no wonder that rhubarb commanded such a premium in western trading cities.

In 1542 rhubarb was sold in France for ten times the price of cinnamon and four times that of saffron.

Over one hundred years later, they were still raking it in. In an English price list from 1657, rhubarb retailed for 16 shillings per pound.

Sound reasonable? Well, maybe, given that today it costs around 3 pounds, 7 shillings and 3 pence. Or just GBP 3.38 in modern parlance.

Of course, back then, you could expect to get far more bang for your buck. 16 shillings in 1657 equates to GBP 1,182.35 in relative worth, using average earnings of the period, apparently.

Compare this with other perennial chinoiserie faves on the same inventory: opium, which retailed for only 6 shillings, and scammony* which sold for 12 shillings per pound.

So, rhubarb, quite the cash crop, non?

* Yes. I had to look up scammony too.

Rhubarb for Opium: Fair Trade

So, you know about the Russians, who foolishly believed they could mess with their sole rhubarb supplier.

Well, it appears that the Brits were also subject to the emperor’s wrath around 100 years later.

Remember, in Chinese imperial thinking at the time, a paucity of rhubarb was the ticket to a slow, painful death. Oh yes.

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Marco Polo: Rhubarb Mule

Whilst the Chinese had been pretty savvy regarding the use of rhubarb for centuries, it’s not entirely clear how it managed to end up in European pharmacopia in the Middle Ages.

Marco Polo: Looking sharp as ever

Marco Polo: Looking sharp as ever

Rhubarb scholars (an impressive job title, if ever there were one) suggest that the rheum first found its way to the European marketplace largely thanks to Marco Polo. It appears that our bearded Venetian friend became a huge fan of the rheum during his 24-year backpacking stint around Asia, reportedly having a bag of rhubarb amongst his possessions when he died.

Incidentally, we’d like to think that his death and the rhubarb are unconnected.

Marco wrote extensively about rhubarb, learning all about its medicinal properties during his time as confidante to Kublai Khan – Genghis’s grandson – and traveling around Cathay. He too noted that the plant was originally from the Gansu area.

Rhubarb – and one or two other things he picked up on his travels, no doubt – was to make Marco Polo a hugely wealthy chap when Kublai Khan finally agreed to let him return to Venice.

Soon after his return, rhubarb became quite de rigueur in Europe for its treatment of digestive complaints.

Hard to believe, really, that a laxative attained such a loyal following thousands of miles from the wretched hillsides on which it grew.

Imagine what kind of riches might have awaited old Marco had he thought to get stuck in to those luscious red roots? He may have made a splash amongst general practitioners of the day, but it was still hundreds of years before they thought to pair it with a few apples, wrap it in pastry and stick it in the oven at gas mark 4 for 30-40 minutes.

You kind of think they missed a trick there, really.

Jiuquan: Home of Rhubarb

Prospect of huge rhubarb groves over the hill not looking promising

Prospect of huge rhubarb groves over the hill not looking promising

Surrounded all sides by snow-capped mountains and endless desert, the Hexi Corridor is a pretty unforgiving place if you happen to stray off the main path.

This was the main artery between China and Central Asia, and still the route of the main train line out to the Western provinces. It also partly explains Gansu province’s ridicuous shape, although how anybody could possibly approve this kind of geographic administrative nonsense is quite beyond me.

Although it appears to have grabbed more headlines in recent years as being the jumping off point for China’s space programme, this valley hosts a string of fertile oasis towns which gave rise to bumper crops of precious rhubarb, which is indigenous to the region.

Of these towns, Jiuquan is our very own ground zero on the Rhubarb Rhoute. People, this is where it all began.

You need Rhubarb? *Guffaw guffaw*

I’ve spoken to many people here in China over the past few weeks about rhubarb. Da huang, 大黄, literally ‘big yellow’, is clearly not uppermost on people’s minds.

“So do you know where I can get hold of rhubarb here in Beijing?”, I asked, craving a stick of the red stuff, preferably stewed and packed into a pastry case with a smattering of strawberries.

“Rhubarb? What’s rhubarb?”

“Big plant big green leaves. Da huang.

“Never heard of it”

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The Threat of Withheld Rhubarb

Rhubarb is a prime bargaining chip in international relations. Fact.

Uncle Joe would drive a hard bargain - but Churchill knew he had the upper hand

Uncle Joe would drive a hard bargain - but Churchill knew he had the upper hand

First – some context. Rhubarb held a semi-sacred status amongst Chinese imperial circles, largely due to its ability to flush out all the general nastiness that one encountered living in China centuries ago. (It’s pretty grisly now, so imagine what it must have been like before soap and toothpaste made it to the Middle Kingdom.)

Logically, they believed that the Europeans were similarly as obsessed, and to withhold rhubarb was tantamount to abandoning them to a painful death by constipation – en masse.

First, it was the Russians who were to risk this terrible threat.

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