It does not happen too often that I see something and have the instant, burning desire to own it. Yet when I first saw a terracotta rhubarb forcer in a magazine a few years ago I wanted one. Not only would it supply us with rhubarb from the garden several weeks earlier, the tall cloche just looked beautiful, like an ancient relic in the garden.
I have always loved rhubarb. As a child in Germany I ate it until my teeth hurt, preferably with Dr. Oetker vanilla pudding, ice-cold from the fridge and straight from the serving bowl. Rhubarb was one of the first things I planted when I started my kitchen garden ten years ago.
Unable to find a rhubarb forcer for sale, I looked into getting one from the UK where rhubarb forcers originate. Most of the world’s rhubarb forcing is done in the “Rhubarb Triangle” in Yorkshire, where it is grown in special forcing sheds.
It would have been prohibitively expensive to have a heavy and fragile 2-feet high rhubarb forcer shipped to the US. My attempts to find a local pottery that could make one also ended nowhere. This spring, I finally gave up on the rhubarb forcer. However, not on the idea of rhubarb forcing!I bought a large round black plastic tub for 5 dollars. Although not a pretty sight in my garden, it did the job. And if I am perfectly honest to myself this was the best solution anyway; the terracotta would not have withstood our cold winters, and I would have to haul the beast to the frost-free basement every year.
Terracotta rhubarb forcers have lids, so they are not airtight. I burned two small holes in the bottom of the tub with a nail heated over a lighter and placed the tub over one of my two rhubarb plants when the ground was still frozen in March. Then I tucked a thick layer of straw around the tub and placed a rock on top so it would not blow over.
As the ground thawed and the rhubarb crowns of both plants broke through the soil, I could not see much difference between them at the beginning. Of course I went to check on my rhubarb almost daily. Then the forced plant took off. It was fascinating to see the pale rose-colored stalks with neon-yellow leaves grow almost overnight. I gave both plants half a cup of balanced organic fertilizer, like I always do in the spring.Yesterday I harvested the forced rhubarb and removed the tub for good. I was a bit concerned that the rhubarb might get sun scald so I intentionally chose to do this when the weather forecast said the next few days would be at least partially cloudy. Exposed to light, the leaves will turn green again.
Because forcing is tough on the plant, not all the stalks should be harvested. I only removed the thickest stalks, about one-third of the plant. Also, rhubarb that has been forced cannot be harvested again that same year, and a plant should not be forced two years in a row, some sources even say not more than once altogether.
My favorite method of preparing rhubarb sauce is baking it in the oven. I followed my recipe on this blog, using only 2¼ pounds trimmed rhubarb stalks and 1¼ cups sugar. No extra liquid is needed; the forced rhubarb stalks contain much more moisture than regularly grown rhubarb. I would therefore not use the forced rhubarb for pies or crumbles because I am afraid it would make them soggy.
For rhubarb sauce, on the other hand, the forced rhubarb is superb. It has a subtle rhubarb flavor, much less of the “furry teeth” feeling after eating it, and it melts in your mouth.
If I want to force rhubarb again, I will need to plant more. I will decide about that after I see how the forced plant is recovering. I am glad I tried forcing rhubarb this year. After an endless winter that pushed the growing season back at least three weeks on our windy hilltop, being able to enjoy the first rhubarb from the garden now is wonderful.
With every spoonful of the rosy rhubarb sauce I can taste that spring has finally arrived.
Photos by Ted Rosen