Irish rhubarb variety is like the hard working scullery maid

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Food wise, this is one of my favourite times of year as it heralds the start of the rhubarb season.

In Yorkshire, young rhubarb shoots are tricked into growing early within an area called the Rhubarb Triangle, between the towns of Wakefield, Rothwell and Morley. They’re grown in sheds dimly lit by candlelight and the premature stalks are a delicate pink colour. To witness this at first hand, is on my bucket list of things to do. Apparently you can hear the shoots creaking as they grow.

Greengrocers are stocking this delicacy now. It’s also known as Champagne Rhubarb and is well worth finding and splashing out on. As it’s nickname suggests, it’s not cheap but as a treat, the sourcing effort pays dividends.

The first of the local rhubarb is appearing simultaneously to its cousin the forced rhubarb. While the Yorkshire variety is beautiful, blushing and delicate like an English Rose, the Northern Irish variation is robust, green tinged and ruddy – more like a hard working scullery maid. Each has their own beauty and value.

The delicate English variety is best suited to desserts where it can show off it’s flushed loveliness – it’s great combined in a fool or on the side of a set creamy pudding. I’ve also had it shaved very finely and served as a raw salad, mixed with gentle spicing and some vinegar, honey and oil, as an accompaniment to freshly grilled mackerel. This isn’t as wacky as it sounds as rhubarb is technically a vegetable and not a fruit, so sits as easily with savoury as with sweet. Cooking lightly oiled forced rhubarb on a grill pan and then tossing in some sugar, is a triumph served with pork chops or lamb or calves liver. The sweet sour rhubarb is perfect with a hint of horseradish – the heat works well with the tangy shoots.

Local rhubarb is brilliant for chutney and a great way of preserving it if you have a good crop. My rhubarb “crop” was an unmitigated disaster last year so I rely on somebody else to make it. Mandy from Akushla preserves in Holywood,is a regular exhibitor at events and I always get one of her chutneys to have with blue cheese or meats. My mother has finally admitted that, despite years of encouragement, I don’t have green fingers, so now I’ve accepted this fact, I concede happily and rely on those who do have, to grow for me!

This week I’ve got recipes for rhubarb, both sweet and savoury. Pork and rhubarb are excellent bed fellows – the zingy rhubarb is a good foil to the rich meat and works in a similar way to the classic apple sauce. My recipe is for a spiced pork casserole and the rhubarb is added at the end to give a sour edge to the dish.

Rhubarb and coconut were made for each other - they both have Asian origins so are sublime partners.

David and Fiona Armstrong-Boyd distil a lovely gin at the Rademon Estate outside Downpatrick and the second recipe is for a rhubarb trifle using their gin, redolent of juniper and spices with coconut for the sponge.

The nutty sponge, zesty rhubarb and spicy noted gin all work beautifully together.