Tag Archives: rhubarb

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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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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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 Ground Zero

Ever since arriving in Gansu province, home of the ‘barb, i’ve been quizzing the locals on what they know about the veggie.

“I’ve come here to find out about the birthplace of rhubarb”, I proffer (once we’re finished with the usual where are you from/are you married/how much do you earn shenanigans.)
“What’s Rhubarb?”, my taxi driver asks, feigning interest.
“It’s a plant. Green leaves, red stalks etc etc etc. You know it?”
“Never heard of it”
“Really? It was first grown in Jiuquan – about 20 minutes away from here”
“I’m from Jiuquan”.

I can’t quite believe my luck. I’m not sure at what point I found this spot on a map so fascinating – but here, in the clapped out Hyundai with me, was a real Jiuquanren.

“So… tell me about it! You’re from Jiuquan, but you’ve never heard of rhubarb?”
“Jiuquan is a rural city. Jiayuguan is an industrial city.”

That was about as far as I was getting. So, the waitresses in the restaurants:

“Where are you from?”
“I’m from Jiuquan” (why is everyone in Jiayuguan, a city of 200,000 people, from the next town down the road?)
“Fantastic! That’s where rhubarb is from, isn’t it?”
“What’s rhubarb?”

My traveling companion, Chris, initially amused by my quest, now doubts its authenticity. Maybe this is all some big joke? If even the locals have never heard of rhubarb, well, perhaps it came from somewhere else?

I take a moment – and then pile back into the car, destination Casa de la Rhubarb.

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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.

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…