Tag Archives: Rhubarb Knowledge

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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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.

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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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…