When I was a child, I specifically remember everyone had rhubarb growing in their yard. A couple neighbors had so much they had signs at the end of their driveway selling it. These were usually the folks that had a raised garden bed 20 ft long and 5 ft wide dedicated to nothing but rhubarb.
One day, the doorbell rang and I went to answer it. No one was there but a huge pile of rhubarb had been left on our porch and a small speck of an individual was seen running off in the distance. My mother sighed in despair but to us kids, it was a thrill. It meant rhubarb pie and sticks of rhubarb with the skins peeled and dunked into a sugarbowl.
Rhubarb is technically a vegetable not a fruit as most people think. It’s origins can be traced back to the Rha River because it’s name literally means “Volga River Barbarian” . The Romans found it somewhere in the Siberian/Mongolian regions although there is a similair Chinese Rhubarb who’s roots and stalks were used in medicines. Rhubarb has been used as a cathartic, a laxative and as a dying agent for cloth.
Surprisingly, the leaves are poisonous. They contain large amounts of oxalic acid which can make you very sick or possibly kill you in large enough doses. You would have to eat 11lbs of the leaves apparently to be sure you’d die.
Marco Polo and other explorers brought rhubarb back to europe but transport costs were so high, it was prohibitive until they could actually bring the plant and grow it locally. Ruy Gonzáles de Clavijo , 1403 sent a report back to his country stating “The best of all merchandise coming to Samarkand was from China: especially silks, satins, musk, rubies, diamonds, pearls, and rhubarb…” .
It’s Ben Franklin who is credited with bringing rhubarb to America. The seeds were planted and plants were distributed mostly in the New England Region. Thus the reason we have such an over-abundance of it.
And here’s the rub of it all…….. apparently with all this use of rhubarb, no one ever thought to eat it until the 17th century……………………..
This plant has been around and documented since the time of Rome and no one ever stripped off the skins and just took a bite out of it? I’m not buying it.
Rhubarb Wine recipe: (originally posted in SCUM Magazine/ showing my age, I bet most of you have never heard of that SCA Publication) / Makes 5 gallons
10 lbs of Rhubarb (fresh, diced and frozen)
10 lbs of white cane sugar
2 Black Tea Bags
So we started by going over to my secret stash of rhubarb and spending the better part of an afternoon picking it.
We brought it back home and after cleaning the tub thoroughly, filled it up with cold water to wash the rhubarb itself. I was rather alarmed how much stuff was still stuck to it, but atleast we guaranteed there was no “extra protein” in the mix
Combine the diced rhubarb with the sugar and blend evenly. Make sure your doing this in a stainless steel container because it will eat the aluminum away. Leave it for 24 hrs. The sugar draws the rhubarbs juices out.
Water (to equal top off at 5 gallons)
Pour the Rhubarb Syrup off into a carboy
and then run your water through the rhubarb several times to make sure you get all the sugar out of it. The rhubarb is going to be a very bland version of it’s former self and will probably have a slightly lighter green color than canned peas.
The carboy will be full and of a rosé color.
Add the Black Tea
1 packet of yeast
The original recipe called for champagne yeast but I found that way too dry so I substituted D-47 and was very impressed with the results. It managed to keep the rosé tinge and a residual amount of sweetness which really allowed you to taste the rhubarb flavor as a pie would be.
Now because I was doing such a large batch (4x the usual recipe), we got a little bit of extra coming out.
First, I didn’t have a clear jug big enough but I had a food grade plastic barrel that we used to put the mix in
I kept sparging the rhubarb in the mixing bowl and even after I had rinsed the rhubarb 4 times, I was still getting color. I figured if there’s still color, there’s still sugar so I did a batch of 4th runnings that could have been a light wine on it’s own.
Secondly, I knew we’d be here all week if I decided to use only 2 packets of D47 yeast. So I created a starter the day before and pushed the yeast count up as much as I could before I had to pitch.
So we pitched the yeast starter and sealed the container on one side but left it slightly loose on the other. I had no doubt that if a regular vapor lock was used, it would have been blown off within the first 3 or 4 hrs. So I trusted the 1 inch blanket of CO2 would maintain a positive pressure and I was right.
So the barrel sat here during the cooler months and when the temperature upstairs started getting to 70 degrees inside the kitchen, we racked off and got the rhubarb wine off the old lees (used up yeast) and transferred them to 4 carboys which were moved to the basement where the temp was still a comfortable 60 degrees F
Another month and we start seeing this
So I deemed it worthy to rack into a carboy and bring it to the Great Northeaster War this past weekend. It went over grand. along with the other choices we had (Dandelion Wine, Belgian Abbey Ale, Apple Beer, Blueberry Bitters, and some Pomegranite Blueberry Mead/ only the Dandelion and Rhubarb were mine. the others were made by folks here in the Barony of Stonemarche and were kind enough to put it on the Bar).
Like any person with half a brain, you’re saying “ok Kythe, you have a period ingredient but no proof of a period beverage being made from that product”. I would have to agree with you. The fact that they can document use of this rhubarb for everything from plant dye to medicine…..and we know that cordials in period were used as medicine for their healing capabilities as well. Is this evidence, no, it’s just as speculative as the Ninkasi Prayer Beer . After all this documentation, atleast I can prove one thing; The ends don’t always line up to the ending you want. More research may be needed.