Tag Archives: Venice

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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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.