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.

3 thoughts on “The Rhubarb Emporium

  1. Big Vince

    That was the cheesiest sign off yet for one of your posts. And there have been a few contenders. But lets not be critical here – if I were writing a blog, its likely every entry would be dripping with fromage, or just wildly obscene, or both.

    I’ve just received a postcard from a 林主度 in Istanbul. Am loving the picture of the Turkish chicken in Box 6.

    You may have completed the Rhoute. But you’re still not back in Blighty yet. No crumbling before the finish line.

  2. richard jackson

    Excellent blog. A few rheferences for you which are not immediately apparent even on the Net yet.

    Rhubarb in North America: most net entries ascribe rh’s introduction to St Benjamin Franklin. It is true that he was involved (at a time when, before turning coat completely, he was a royalist and involved with British scientists) in seeking out rh to send back to America. But he was beaten to it by several decades by John Collinson who not only sent rhubarb seeds to John Bartram in the 1730s but also sent Bartram a recipe for making rhubarb pie – ‘eats best cold’ commented Collinson.

    Rhubarb as a weapon of war: try googling ‘rhubarb Sydney Smith’ and ‘rhubarb Napoleon’ for an amusing surprise. During the mutual blockade of the Continental System, Napoleon was, according to his private secretary’s memoirs published in 1832, obsessed with preventing any R entering Britain; conversely the British Foreign Secretary, according to Smith, intended to win the War by inflicting constipation from the Garonne to the Baltic by stopping all trade in rhubarb (the Czars held a more or less personal monopoly on rhubarb trade at the time and one cannot help wondering if the miilions lost to his private income every week from the loss of this trade due to the Napoleonic blockade was one of the main reasons why the Russians pulled out of their alliance with the French which led to the failed 1812 invasion and the ultimate defeat of the Small Corsican – in which case he was brought down by R).

    The Black Death: A few facts – join them together yourself. 1. It was in 1292 that Marco Polo returned from China waxing lyrical on several occasions about the rhubarb he’d seen growing there – but only putting it down on paper several years later
    2. Before that people (in Europe) had no idea where R came from
    3. IN 1345-7 the Black Death came to Europe and enjoyed itself wiping out a third of the population
    4. All historians agree that this plague came into Europe as a result of trade with central Asia but they do not connect this with….
    5. ….The Black Death still exists and its most common sufferers are marmot hunters in western China
    6. Very few European travellers even centuries after Polo saw R growing in the wild but one, John Bell of Scotland came across it in the 1720s on a trip from Moscow to Peking. He saw it by accident since he was chasing a marmot at the time. The marmot disappeared into its burrow…..made in a patch of rhubarb. Others then later saw the same thing and the earliest editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica stated without reservation that marmots and R were generally found together.
    7. We now know that marmots are the original host for the vector of the Balck Death…….So, was it trade in R that caused the Black Death

    Darwin: why did Darwin go to sea? Because he tried medicine and theology and wasn’t enthused by either. Indeed his diaries tell us precisely why he quit medicine: he hated having to get up on freezing mornings in Edinburgh only to have to breakfast on cold porridge and spend the rest of the morning listening to interminable lectures of the medicinal properties of Rhubarb. Without rhubarb there would have been no Darwinian theories….

    The three Kings: were Zoroastrians. Their scriptures state that the first man and woman were created when the semen of the Son of God spilled into the ground when he was slain by the forces of evil. Some of his semen was carried away by their version of the Holy Spirit and placed in a lake where eventually, the scriptures say,it would impregnate a virgin who would give birth to God’s grandson. At the place where that portion of his semen seeped into the ground arose a plant out of which stepped the first man and woman. Yes, the plant was rhubarb. As for the visit of the three kings – they were looking for the virgin who had bathed in a lake…..Galilee??….. and had given birth not to the King of the Jews but their own God’s heir.

    There are lots more R stories but that will do for now

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *