Tag Archives: marco polo

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.

Rhubarb: A Cartographer’s Fascination

1627 - and the Brits were already mad for the 'barb

1627 - and the Brits were already mad for the 'barb

The image on the left (click to enlarge) is of John Speed’s Map of the Kingdome of China, published in the first English World Atlas in 1627. Google Earth it ain’t.

It has several claims to fame: it is the only map of China of this period to include the illustrated borders showing scenes of local colour –  Marco Polo’s Quinzay is top-right, next to Macao, which is almost unrecognisable without hordes of well-monied mandarins scurrying to Casino Lisboa. Elsewhere, indigenous Chinese, Japanese & Burmese figures make the most of the other side borders.

However, crucially, it is the first European map to mention rhubarb. Whilst it’s tough to read, in the Tanguth region (top-centre), Speed notes:

Out of this Kingdom men will have all rhubarb to be brought unto them of Europe

Grand words indeed. It all seems somewhat incongruous for a plant which, for most people, attained fame as an affordable alternative to gooseberries in their home cooking.

Plenty to learn about rhubarb, it seems…